If ever there were victims of on-the-job illness that deserve our sympathy, it has to be those who have become sick due to their role in rescuing 9/11 victims at the World Trade Center bombing site, or whose jobs required them to be present at the toxic scene for days and weeks after the tragic incident. Yet the city of New York seems to be fighting those making workers compensation claims tooth and nail. One highly placed victim, former deputy mayor Rudy Washington, sick from severe respiratory ailments, had been getting the same runaround as many of the other 9/11 claimants, that is, until Mayor Michael Bloomberg intervened. While it’s good that someone is paying attention to what is happening to many if not most of those workers, it shouldn’t have taken a politically connected victim or the mayor’s intervention to see progress in getting those cases resolved.
Rudy Washington, who was a deputy mayor from 1996 to 2001 under former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, was at City Hall on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He worked to coordinate emergency response and aid to victims, overseeing the delivery of heavy construction equipment for rescue and recovery efforts at ground zero in the hours after the attack. As a result of his heroic efforts in the aftermath of 9/11, his friend, Randy M. Mastro, reports, “He’s suffering severe respiratory problems. He has an asthmatic condition for the first time ever. He now has to take multiple medications. He has had to be rushed to the emergency room on multiple occasions because of those breathing problems.” (See New York Times article.)
Like scores of other workers who have encountered severe respiratory problems from breathing the toxic dust at Ground Zero, Washington filed a workers compensation claim, putting the city on notice that his respiratory illness was a result of his 9/11 efforts. Unfortunately, he did so after the two-year deadline for filing such claims. Experts claim that New York’s two-year deadline for filing a workers comp claim is not adequately designed to deal with illnesses such as those which have developed over time post-9/11. Said Robert S. Smith, a professor of labor economics at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, “I don’t think the system is well designed for diseases that have long latency periods.” (See New York Times article.) John F. Burton Jr., an economist and lawyer at Rutgers University who has written extensively about workers’ compensation, said that “New York is unusual in having a statute of limitations that is often very difficult for workers to meet if they have a delay between the date of exposure to a toxic substance and the time they are disabled.” (See New York Times article.)
There have been and continue to be various efforts in Albany to improve how workers sick from their 9/11 involvement are treated by the legal system. Last year, the New York Legislature passed a bill that made it easier for government workers deployed near ground zero to receive disability pensions, creating a presumption that the illness resulted from 9/11 and waiving the burden of having to prove that assertion. This year, a bill has been introduced to create a similar presumption that applies to workers’ compensation, waive the two-year deadline and give workers up to six months from the time they notice their symptoms to file their claims. While the Bloomberg administration opposed last year’s disability pension bill, they have not yet taken a position on this year’s workers compensation measure. (See New York Times article.)
Since the bill has not been passed, however, former deputy mayor Washington is stuck with the current system’s deadlines, which means that the city has fought his claim at every step of the process. Since Washington was hospitalized for a few days, he claimed eligibility for an exception to the deadline, which permits claims when the employer has already paid wages or medical expenses related to the injury. Since Washington was paid for four missed days of work related to the attack, his lawyer claimed that he qualified for the exception. The city’s lawyers appealed, arguing that Washington did not qualify for the exception. (See New York Times article.)
Now Mayor Bloomberg has stepped in, saying that the City’s lawyers should not have appealed such a “technicality,” and directing the Law Department to resolve Washington’s case. (See New York Times article.) What about the other workers in situations similar to Washington’s, who were not able to receive such intervention? As Joel Shufro of NYCOSH pointed out, “We have people who, unlike Rudy Washington, don’t have friends in high places and are losing their houses and having their kids withdraw from college because they can’t get medical care and wage-replacement benefits, paltry as they are, to sustain themselves.” (See New York Times article.)
The city needs to take a good hard look at the remaining cases which have yet to be resolved, to make sure that employees with valid claims (but less access to City Hall) are not spending their remaining precious breaths on fighting what’s due them. And legislators in Albany also need to make sure that workers comp legislation that takes into account the nature of illnesses starting to emerge in 9/11 responders gets passed this year.
Workplace Fairness, Health & Safety
NYCOSH, Environmental Contamination including 9/11
Centers for Disease Control, Surveillance for World Trade Center Disaster Health Effects Among Survivors of Collapsed and Damaged Buildings