Interviews & Profiles

Stacey Pheffer Amato would like to get New York retirees a COLA

A Q&A with the chair of the Assembly Governmental Employees Committee.

Stacey Pheffer Amato chairs the Assembly Governmental Employees Committee.

Stacey Pheffer Amato chairs the Assembly Governmental Employees Committee. Stacey Pheffer Amato

Assembly Member Stacey Pheffer Amato assumed the role of chair of the Governmental Employees Committee a little over a year ago, and hit the ground running. The Queens lawmaker spoke recently with City & State about several key measures she passed out of her committee last year, her focus on cost-of-living adjustments this year and other priorities she has for this session.

You’ve completed a full year as chair of the Governmental Employees Committee. What were your biggest accomplishments leading this committee?

I have to say having 27 bills signed into law was pretty exciting in the first year. We did amazing work. We had some really great wins. A7414, which provides health insurance coverage for surviving spouses or domestic partners of members of the FDNY. My goal was to help people and families. When you look at public sector workers and how we protect their families, that’s when you look at bills that are meaningful, to make sure that their spouse has benefits.

Another one is A6856, which expanded the announcements of public service jobs so they will be posted and announced to all the universities and colleges in New York state. We are having a recruitment issue in the state, and this is one method we have to make sure colleges put up opportunities that are out here.

Then there’s A4008, which provides accidental retirement for court officers who are hurt on the job. A7155 requires provisional employees time that counts toward their probationary time. And A7156, my super favorite, changes the Board of Education Retirement System to automatically enroll its members like every other pension does and give current members retroactive enrollments. It’s huge.

What are your top labor-oriented legislative priorities this year? 

For this year’s priorities, we’re looking at several (cost-of-living-adjustment) bills to help our retirees, help people stay in New York and our retirees. Things have gotten expensive and we have to make sure retirees get their share, which is a (cost-of-living) increase, and inflation protection for retirees (A6636 would enhance inflation protection). We’re all going to work on ensuring survivors’ spouses get 100% of spouses benefits (A6639) instead of the current 50%. And the last one, we’re going to solidify Article 78 rulings when court orders paid disability retirement. We’re going to make sure the retirement system pays out disability without ignoring it. They’re not compelled to Article 78, believe it or not.

We’re just introducing them now. There’s a fiscal note for our bills and if it’s a city bill we have to get a home rule. Bills are getting their proper documentation. We do have to wait for the fiscal note, and it takes some time every time.  I learned that last year, what I think is easy may not be. Some of them are very expensive. If they have a big fiscal note attached, like Tier 6, some of those adjustments are going to be very expensive. I think the COLA is going to have some teeth this year. We want to give that attention to retirees. I believe they’ll get through my committee, but not sure from that point on. It has to get to the floor. I’m trying to do that as early as possible. They’re not controversial but sometimes they have a high fiscal note and we have to talk about that.

You have introduced legislation on the tip credit system. What would it do? 

I had a bill before the pandemic. I support a tipped wage. I’m a former small-business restaurant owner that my husband’s family owned. It was Elegante Pizzeria on Beach 92nd Street. It was sold a year ago. My husband owned it 40 years. I married into it. I don’t cook. I’m a pizzeria widow. We live in our neighborhood, supported it, it served four generations. When you do 40 years making pizza, your body says no more. My husband is truly a people person. He misses the people. He had his foot on the pulse of the community. We owned a business in our small town. 

What’s happening this year with pension tier reform, a top priority of labor unions?

We’re all together. We know there’s a recruitment problem. We know that over 50% of the people are in Tier 6. We need some adjustments. (State Sen. Robert) Jackson and I are on the same page. The dollar amounts to make these adjustments, that we are looking into. There are ones that bring the final average salary from five years to three years. That’s important to a lot of people, and we’re hearing it from union after union – 32BJ SEIU, 1199SEIU, AFL-CIO – everyone is walking into it on the same page, which is the first step. As a former union member of DC 37 and then UFT, I’m someone who knows what the unions need.

Are you revisiting Tiers 5 and 6? What specifically would you change?

So A7309 adjusts the overtime cap for Tier 5 and 6. That’s a discussion, it doesn’t matter what title it’s called, as long as we make some of the adjustments. One thing I discovered when I got the book of retirement plans, there have been so many adjustments. We want to make sure it’s representative of the workforce. Instead of a five-year average, it should be a three-year average like other tiers. The final year salary, we’re trying to push that into the budget.

And A5487, Tier 6 would move an employee back to a flat 3%. Right now it can go up to 6%. For some folks, it was working. Members contribute 3% of their annual wages to the retirement system. Currently, Tier 6 people have to do up to 6% depending on what they make. A brand newly elected Assembly member for instance, they’re in Tier 6, so they pay a high percent of their income into their pension. It’s much higher.

I don’t know where these thoughts came from, but we’ve been hearing about it since 2016. We’ve been hearing about these adjustments. Tier 6 has been in place for 12 years now.

Are you looking at the potential impact of AI on public sector workers?

I don’t ever want to replace a forward-facing union employee with AI. It can enhance, but I am concerned. We’re walking back from self-checkout because they don’t work. You need employees at a counter and a desk. I think there are places where we can enhance certain things and we can never replace jobs.