Up to 15,000 Who Toiled At Contaminated Sites Could be Covered
JOHN SAMUELSEN: ‘Deserve disability parity.’
TONY AVELLA: ‘It’s about doing the right thing.’
ARTIE SYKEN: Paid a price but still battling.
Seventeen years after 9/11, there is a move in Albany to grant civilian public employees who suffer from illnesses related to their World Trade Center service the three-quarters-of-final-average-salary disability benefit their uniformed colleagues got years ago.
WTC survivor advocates estimate that there could be as many as 15,000 municipal and state workers who eventually qualify. Close to 2,000 of them are members of Transport Workers Union Local 100, which played a largely unheralded yet central role at the 16-acre clean-up site.
‘Responded With Valor’
“Transit workers and other public-sector workers responded to the scene with great valor,” said John Samuelsen, the president of the TWU International, in an email. “TWU mechanics fixed the excavation equipment for months, and TWU Bus Operators ferried the emergency responders in and out of the attack zone, and hundreds of us worked the pile relentlessly.”
He continued, “We breathed in the toxic air and are now paying the price for that with our lives. There is no just rationale for disparity in disability benefits for the workers [who] heroically rose to the occasion.”
State Sen. Tony Avella is the bill’s (S-6371) prime sponsor and Senator Diane Savino is a co-sponsor. According to a staff person for Sen. Marty Golden, who chairs the Civil Service and Pensions Committee, he would need to see an updated fiscal note about the potential cost of the benefit before weighing in.
Assemblyman David Weprin is the sponsor of the bill (A8433) in the Assembly.
$29M First-Year Cost
Pointing out that cost estimates have to be provided by three different retirement systems, Senator Avella said in a phone interview, “Currently the fiscal notes I have received from 2017 show that the potential cost is somewhere near $29 million in the first year.”
He continued, “But this is not about the money, it is about doing the right thing. It is just the right thing to do. These people were either directed by their agencies to do this work or they volunteered, and it shouldn't matter whether or not they were wearing a uniform."
The bill’s boosters are hoping they can get it passed before the State Legislature adjourns in late June.
PEF, DC 37 Lobbying
The initiative has the support of the Public Employees Federation, which is circulating a letter in Albany making the case that “this legislation is needed as diseases, conditions, or health impairments are still being diagnosed” and may take years to develop among the public employees who played a role at the WTC.
“All of the brave women and men who worked in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack need to be financially protected from any disabilities that may have resulted,” according to PEF’s legislative memo. “This bill helps to ensure that these heroes are properly cared for and that any disabilities that may have resulted from their performance of their duties be covered.”
DC 37 struck a similar chord in a memo it circulated on the bill. “Civilian employees deserve the same retirement benefit as their uniformed counterparts without a distinction on the creation of a 2-tiered system of entitled and unentitled,” it stated.
One Man’s Experience
The images of the 9/11 carnage still haunt Artie Syken, 59, who works for the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal. He was detailed to Battery Park City, which is across the West Side Highway from the World Trade Center site, on Sept. 12, 2001.
A member of District Council 37’s Local 1359, he said that in the very beginning there were no masks given to those working on the recovery. “Remember Christie Whitman saying the air was safe to breathe?” he asked during a phone interview. “When we first got down there, we had dead bodies all over the place and the Morgue set up a tent right nearby.”
Mr. Syken and his colleagues were tasked with canvassing the 92-acre enclave where 9,000 people lived in 23 high-rise apartment buildings.
Long Climbs, Dead Pets
“We had to walk up the steps of those high-rise buildings that were 30 stories or taller,” he recalled. “We had to deal with all of the dead pets. We were down there for several months into the spring and we were working with the tenants that were displaced.”
He continued, “I have the glass particles in my lungs from the dust. I have thyroid cancers and lost 40 percent of my lung capacity, and I had my thyroid removed.”
Three years ago, Mr. Syken applied for a three-quarters disability pension and was rejected because he was told that those employed by DHCR were not entitled to that benefit. “I thought I was good to go because I had the presumption notice from my agency on file with the state retirement system and I was registered with the Federal Victims’ Compensation Fund,” he said.
A Matter of Fairness
He is closing in on the 30th anniversary of his state employment in December but doesn’t want to retire because he would be penalized if went out before he turned 62. But he said that’s not his only motivation for hanging on. “If I leave the job, there is no one left to fight for this,” he said. “I am not going to stop complaining about this until I stop breathing.”
“Everybody was breathing the same dirty air with the glass particles in it whether you were a police officer, fireman, sanitation worker, court officer or from some other civil-service title,” Mr. Syken said. “People I worked with have already passed away. They are trying to get out of it just to save money.”
Mario Galvet, a member of the TWU Local 100 executive board, has spearheaded a special in-house recognition effort for union members who are now struggling with disabling WTC illnesses.
He said in a phone interview that commemoration of their sacrifice was important because few people actually knew about the role the union played. Part of that historical oversight he blames on the strict restrictions at the WTC site that limited the photographic and video images of what was actually going on there in the immediate aftermath.
“It was almost exclusively Transit Authority heavy equipment that was in there working with the Department of Sanitation front-end loaders clearing these huge mountains of debris, and I thought over the years the historical record would reflect that,” Mr. Galvet said in a phone interview. “But when we went to the 9/11 Museum, it was 100 percent devoid of it, not a photograph, not a video clip.”
While some 9/11 first-responders, both uniformed and civilian, have had trouble documenting their roles during the WTC response and recovery, Local 100 caught a major break with the discovery of a New York City Transit document dating back to 2002 that was misplaced but was found in 2015. It was a list of those whose WTC work was reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Revelation and Loss
Back then in 2002, Senator [Hillary] Clinton's name was dropped to the agency and it was made clear she wanted them to cooperate with the union and they sent this payroll list of 2,100 names snail mail," recalled Mr. Galvet. "So we found this same hard copy in 2015 when we moved our headquarters, but the union had to do some detective work, so we purchased an optical character recognition scanner and we were able to generate, through our database, the updated contact info for all the members."
But Mr. Galvet was not braced for what else the union’s information technology department had documented. “We were so glad to get this documentation, and I was looking at it while I was standing on line at the grocery store, but was just blown away when I realized that close to 150 of the guys had already died,” he said.