NJ denies full benefits to paid firefighters who volunteered on 9/11
UPDATE: The Assembly passed the bill on Thursday, May 23, by a 77-0 vote. It awaits action by the state Senate before it could go to Gov. Phil Murphy's desk.
TRENTON — Bill Ricci, until recently a lieutenant in the Clifton Fire Department, said his career was ended by sarcoidosis that he contracted after volunteering his time off at Ground Zero in the days after 9/11.
But because Ricci was not on the clock while he toiled at the toxic site, he does not qualify for a full accidental disability pension.
“What always had been understood is that there is an unwritten bond between civil servants and their employers – that we will do what needs to be done, at our own peril, but you need to take care of our family when that time comes. And that time has come,” Ricci said.
A bill is up for Assembly approval Thursday that would ensure New Jersey first responders whose health was impaired through their work at Ground Zero can qualify for accidental disability pensions, even if they were at the World Trade Center site on their own time.
The bill, A4882, would apply to members or retirees in the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System or the State Police Retirement System who participated in World Trade Center rescue, recovery or cleanup operations for a minimum of eight hours or were physically injured on Sept. 11 or 12 in 2001.
First responders on paid assignment at Ground Zero have been eligible, but some of those who helped on their own time have not.
Dr. Iris Udasin, who directs a clinical center at Rutgers University that has cared for more than 3,800 9/11 first responders, said the number of people covered by the proposed law “is likely not significant” – but that the impacts would be for sick volunteers not now eligible for accidental disability pensions.
“These responders put themselves in harm’s way to help us all in a moment of crisis. The price that these responders paid with their health is enormous,” Udasin said.
Udasin said around 986 police and firefighters from New Jersey responded at Ground Zero. At least a third are covered under New York’s pension rules, as either Port Authority police officers or retired New York Police Department officers now living in New Jersey,” she said.
“Of the remaining people that might fall under legislation, clearly not all of the police and firefighters are disabled, and most will continue to work despite their illnesses because this is a population that wants to work,” Udasin said.
The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services estimates the bill would result in an increase in the liabilities of PFRS and SPRS but that the increase in annual employer contributions can’t be known.
Assemblyman James Kennedy, D-Union, the bill’s lead sponsor, said the change would affect a limited number of people but is the right thing to do.
“A volunteer from one town had protections that volunteers from other towns didn’t have,” Kennedy said.
“So often we’re skeptical of any benefits,” he said. “Everybody’s always under budget constraints. In this case, the CDC has set up a protocol for observing and quantifying a procedure for this.”
Rob Nixon, the director government affairs for the New Jersey State PBA, said the first responders did what’s expected of them, even when they were giving up their free time to help.
“The illnesses that they’ve contracted are impossible to suggest came from any other point in their lives,” Nixon said. “These are line of duty injuries. They deserve to be treated as line of duty injuries.”
Retirees can have their service or ordinary disability retirement reclassified as an accidental disability retirement, which pays two-thirds of a retiree’s former salary, rather than 40 percent provided though ordinary disability.
Seven percent of all PRFS pension recipients receive accidental disability benefits.
The Senate version of the proposal, S3474, was introduced in February but remains before the Senate state government committee.