Additional reporting by Jose Martinez and Josefa Velasquez
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Union leaders are seeking automatic full line-of-duty death benefits for the families of state and city workers felled by coronavirus — arguing it’s near-impossible to prove whether or not the highly contagious disease was caught on the job.
They’re gearing up for a battle along the lines fought by first responders to the September 11th attacks who developed debilitating illnesses sometimes long after being exposed to deadly toxins at Ground Zero.
“It’s a silent bullet you can’t see,” Paul DiGiacomo, president of the Detectives Endowment Association, said of COVID-19, which has already claimed one of his members.
The 9/11 death benefit for cops and firefighters — which the unions want for coronavirus deaths — gives a designated loved one 75% of their final average salary, or their three best years combined, tax-free. It also grants continued health benefits to spouses, as well as to surviving children until they turn 26.
By contrast, in the case of most city workers who die in the line of duty, the pension and health benefits typically are not passed onto a spouse. The spouse does, however, receive whatever the person contributed to their pension fund.
‘It’s Very Rough’
The union leaders face an uphill battle on the legislative front as the city seeks an initial $1.3 billion in budget cuts in the face of massive private sector layoffs and a bleak economic forecast due to the ongoing statewide shutdown.
The quest is also complicated by the varying pension benefits currently in place for different jobs like cops and firefighters, sanitation workers, nurses, bus drivers, teachers, principals, court officers, homeless shelter staffers, EMTs, and city hospital doctors and nurses.
In addition, six different city and state pension tiers each offer starkly different benefits depending on when someone was hired.
Meanwhile, unions likely will face counterarguments in case after case that workers may have gotten sick during time off.
“It’s very rough,” said state Assemblyman Peter Abbate (D-Brooklyn), who was instrumental in pushing through similar legislation after 9/11.
“It will take a little while,” he added. “It’s a very complicated issue. We have to make sure we cover everyone.”
A spokesperson for the city’s Law Department pointed to the current law, which requires unions to make individual cases for line-of-duty benefits before one of the city’s five pension boards.
“In order to receive line-of-duty pension benefits, an eligible beneficiary must establish that an ‘accident’ occurred while on the job,” said Nicholas Paolucci, a Law Department spokesperson. “There are state laws that make it easier for the beneficiary to satisfy this standard for certain conditions, but no laws of this nature have been passed in response to COVID-19.”
He added, “the city is closely monitoring these issues.”
‘Stress Off Their Shoulders’
State lawmakers will likely require a City Council “home rule” message of support for any proposed bill before considering it in Albany.
On Monday, City Councilmember Joe Borelli (R-Staten Island) and a group of other elected officials wrote a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo urging them to support a presumptive coronavirus death benefit.
“There cannot be any uncertainty about death benefits as we are sending our first responders and essential workers into potential danger,” Borelli told the Staten Island Advance. “We must at least take this stress off their shoulders.”
It is unclear how much the legislation, if passed, would cost.
“We don’t know where this is all going yet. New York hasn’t hit the apex,” said Doug Turetsky, a spokesperson for the city’s Independent Budget Office.
Meanwhile, the number of municipal workers killed by COVID-19 continues to rise. Among those known to have died are seven MTA staffers, along with three correction employees and NYPD and FDNY personnel, according to city officials.
“They are obviously line-of-duty deaths,” said John Samuelsen, president of Transport Workers Union International.
“We were sent out into the midst of the pandemic without essential [personal protective equipment] with no ability to social distance,” he added. “The MTA was caught with their pants around their ankles and transit workers are paying the price for it now.”
Denis Quirk, president of the Court Officers Association, noted one of his COVID-19-stricken members is on a ventilator.
“It’s outrageous that our people have been subject to these working conditions with no masks or gloves,” Quirk said.
‘Document! Document! Document!’
As the legislative push begins, DiGiacomo, who represents about 5,400 detectives, is instructing his members to keep careful records of everyone they come in contact with during each tour.
“Document! Document! Document!” he said he tells them. The information can be used by the union to argue that they became sick, and possibly died, due to COVID-19 contracted while working.
That’s the case with Det. Cedric Dixon, a 23-year NYPD veteran, who died from a coronavirus-related illness on Saturday, according to DiGiacomo.
Dixon, 48, worked in the 32nd Precinct in Harlem, where at least seven other NYPD members contracted coronavirus, the union president said.
The union plans to make its case on behalf of Dixon’s family before the Police Pension Board.
“As far as I’m concerned there’s no difference between this and being shot in the line of duty,” DiGiacomo said. “It should be the same.”
One retired correction labor leader argued all who die from coronavirus-related illness got it while serving the city.
“They’ve been ordered to work in an environment tantamount to a petri dish, which is conducive to contracting the virus,” said Sidney Schwartzbaum, former president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens / Deputy Wardens Association.
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