On Sept. 11, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed into law S.5898, legislation to ensure parity in disability benefits coverage for 9/11 first responders. The law, originally introduced in May 2019 by New York State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport), will provide disability benefits coverage to civilian public employees who responded to Ground Zero and eliminates the disparity in coverage between uniformed and nonuniformed workers.
State Department of Environmental Conservation employee Tim DeMeo, who had called himself one of the “forgotten responders,” said that he finally has peace of mind. He arrived at the scene on 9/11 just as the second plane struck and was injured by falling debris. His vehicle, he said, flipped over and was pancaked. For four months, he worked on removing hazardous waste from the site. Today the Glen Head resident suffers from respiratory ailments and has undergone multiple surgeries and continues to require more.
“Eighteen years ago, I responded to Ground Zero alongside firefighters, police officers and others to the horrors unfolding at Ground Zero. Now today, we share many of the same health issues,” DeMeo said. “The new law will help ensure that my family’s future is secure.”
The new law will establish public workers, such as transit employees and civil engineers, are eligible for the same 75 percent disability benefit coverage as those they worked side-by-side with in the post-9/11 recovery. Hundreds of employees who suffer from serious, terminal or debilitating medical conditions were previously unable to retire as a result of staggering medical costs.
It took nine months to clean up Lower Manhattan, which was contaminated with toxic substances including dioxin, polychlorinated biphenyls, asbestos, pulverized cement, fiberglass and steel. In the years following cleanup, responders found themselves afflicted with respiratory problems, gastroesophageal diseases, onset asbestos-related musculoskeletal illnesses and cancers. Since they are not technically classified as uniformed employees, these men and women previously lost out on significant disability benefits that could have helped them to avoid financial difficulties, Gaughran’s office stated in a press release. In the past, if workers were forced to retire because their medical condition prohibited them from working, most only received one-third pension benefit.
Nesconset resident John Feal, president and founder of the FealGood Foundation, said the law’s passage is long overdue.
“I went to Washington to demand that our government fully fund the Victims Compensation Fund,” he said. “We won that fight. Now we are making real progress in our city and state on how we support our first responders who ran willingly into disaster on 9/11. Eighteen years later, we finally have guaranteed unlimited sick leave and easier access to disability benefits for 9/11 first responders, though it never should have taken so long.”
Feal, a demolition supervisor, lost half of his left foot at Ground Zero when a falling steel beam crushed it. He thanks those who advocated tirelessly on behalf of their fellow first responders, as well as the elected officials who sponsored this legislation.
State union Public Employees Federation President Wayne Spence shared the sentiment.
“PEF is proud to support this law that corrects the injustice suffered by some state employees who were not given the same benefit as those with whom they worked alongside,” Spence said. “A person’s date of hire or bargaining unit should not determine the benefit they received for work they provided after the terrorist attacks.”
The bill was also sponsored by Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Holliswood, Queens) and was supported by District Council 37 AFSCME, New York City’s largest municipal employee union. Gaughran has previously said at the close of the 2019 legislative session that the bill was one that he was most proud.