Can NY learn from 9/11 on COVID-19 disability benefits?

Will workers who contracted COVID-19 on the job receive disability benefits the 9/11 first responders do.
Will workers who contracted COVID-19 on the job receive disability benefits the 9/11 first responders do.
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Will workers who contracted COVID-19 on the job receive disability benefits the 9/11 first responders do.

Can NY learn from 9/11 on COVID-19 disability benefits?

The state may expand disability benefits and workers compensation to those still suffering from COVID-19.
September 10, 2020

In 2005, four years after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, New York state finally passed legislation ensuring that first responders who developed certain illnesses were presumed to have contracted those illnesses on the job, and made those civil servants eligible for accidental disability retirement benefits. The measure means that if a responder at the World Trade Center became permanently disabled because of certain medical conditions – including respiratory or skin diseases – it’s presumed that the person developed that condition in connection to their rescue or clean-up efforts. So just like a firefighter who becomes disabled from an injury received in a burning building would be entitled to a lifetime pension benefit – usually 75% of their salary upon retirement – they would also be eligible for that same disability benefit if they developed certain kinds of cancers, for example. 

New York passed a similar bill this May, establishing a presumption that any public worker who died from the coronavirus was presumed to have contracted the virus on the job, and was made eligible for line-of-duty death benefits. But the state has yet to extend the same presumption for accidental disability benefits. As the coronavirus pandemic wears on, reports persist of COVID-19 “long haulers” and others who experience life-altering and confusing symptoms for months after testing negative for the virus. Some of the tens of thousands of “long haulers” who were sick with the virus earlier this year but have since tested negative report still experiencing extreme fatigue, short-term memory loss and difficulty breathing. 

Dr. Stephen Morse, a professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, said that while it’s not clear how many COVID-19 cases will become chronic, it’s likely that some will be. “We haven’t had enough experience yet to know all the long-term consequences, or how frequent they will be,” Morse wrote over email. “In addition to the ‘long haulers,’ there are reports of heart damage and neurological effects, among others, including in children.”

Now, some public sector union leaders are calling for legislation that will extend disability or workers compensation benefits to the essential workers who contracted COVID-19 on the job and may still be dealing with its devastating symptoms for months or years to come. One of the people who said the state should be looking at doing so is Shaun Francois, president of the city's public sector employees union, District Council 37, and of the New York City Board of Education Employees Local 372. “I’ve had some people that I’ve known that got COVID, and now they’re supposed to be over COVID but you can tell they’re still not fully over it,” Francois said. “Whatever they can do to start the process,” he said, of extending disability benefits, “I think the earlier the better.” 

State Sen. Andrew Gounardes and Assembly Member Peter Abbate, who sponsored May’s line-of-duty death benefits legislation, have both expressed interest in extending accidental disability benefits to public employees who contracted COVID-19, but neither was firm on how that would be done or what such a bill would look like. “I continue to study this issue to learn more about the long-term effects of this novel virus and these findings will determine if there is a need to pursue disability benefits legislation, which there may well be,” Gounardes wrote in an emailed comment.

Abbate sponsored the 2005 legislation making public employees who developed illnesses from responding to 9/11 eligible for accidental disability retirement benefits. But he noted that part of the reason it took so long for that to pass – and the reason it has been amended several times over the years – is because it took a while to understand the extent of illnesses that could be caused by exposure at the World Trade Center. “For years after, we had to add diseases to it, we had to add people to it,” Abbate said of the 2005 bill. New York has since passed additional bills, including one last year that expanded disability benefits to all public employees who were a part of the World Trade Center rescue, recovery or clean-up efforts.

With new and mysterious symptoms of COVID-19 seeming to crop up every day – including for the long haulers – Abbate said that he wanted to take time to get a coronavirus disability benefits bill right and avoid multiple revisions and amendments in the years to come. “I would say if anything is going to happen it would be when we go into session next year,” Abbate said, of moving a potential bill forward. “The idea is to get it right the first time.”

An accidental disability benefits presumption bill, like the kind passed after 9/11, is not the only option for extending benefits to those still suffering from COVID-19 symptoms. State Sen. Jessica Ramos and outgoing Assembly Member Aravella Simotas have introduced legislation that would add exposure to COVID-19 as an occupational disease for which workers compensation must be paid in case of disability or death.

Wayne Spence, president of the New York State Public Employees Federation, said his public sector employees union has advocated for the passage of this bill. “We learned from 9/11 that an illness can slowly kill front-line workers many years later,” Spence wrote in an emailed comment. “Should that become the case with COVID-19, we need to be proactive and not have a wait-and-see attitude.”

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.
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