June 23, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, N.Y.—One uniformed service was conspicuously absent when the de Blasio administration announced June 6 that it had reached agreements to equalize disability pensions for firefighters, sanitation workers, and correction officers hired since 2009. Police officers were not included.
The Uniformed Firefighters Association, the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, and the Correction Officers agreed to pay deductions to make all their members eligible to receive a pension of three-fourths of their salary if they’re disabled by an on-the-job injury. That was the standard before 2009, when then-governor David Paterson vetoed a bill that would have extended those benefits to future hires. The city and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which represents about 24,000 active police officers, are still far apart on how much they should contribute.
“We put a reasonable number on the table,” says a PBA source with knowledge of the negotiations. The union wanted no pay deduction at all, he says, but offered to contribute 0.4% of salary on June 10, at the urging of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. The city’s counteroffer came a week later, “presented as a take-it-or-leave-it”: 1.5%, which could be raised to 3% if an actuary determines that is necessary to cover costs.
“For virtually all of time, police and fire have made the same level of contributions for this coverage,” a mayoral spokesperson responds. The city’s offer was “basically the same agreement as the UFA,” a 2% contribution that “could bump up to 3%.”
The PBA argues that it should pay less than firefighters, because they retire on disability at a much higher rate. In 2015, it says, only 115 officers retired because of on-the-job injuries, while 70%-80% of firefighters eventually do. The June 6 agreement set firefighters’ contributions at 2.0% of their salaries, when the cost to the city is actually 4.3%. If police contributed at the same rate, it says, the city would get “a windfall.”
The NYPD is now the only uniformed service in the state “without a meaningful disability benefit,” the union says. About 11,000 to 12,000 officers are affected by the reduced “Tier 3” pension, which would give them only half their salary.
One it cites is Rosa Rodriguez, who joined the department in 2010. In 2014, she was critically injured and her partner was killed by inhaling smoke from a fire set by a teenage arsonist in Coney Island. If Rodriguez, who has four children, had retired under the old “Tier 2” disability pension, she would have gotten $46,100 a year and been allowed to work at another job, the PBA says. Under the reduced benefit, she would have gotten $28,125, with the amount reduced by half of any Social Security disability payments she received, and her pension would be revoked if she worked.
“No one said police officers shouldn’t have that benefit,” the PBA source says. “No one said it’s about the economics. So there must be some other reason swirling around.”
“For virtually all of time, police and fire have made the same level of contributions for this coverage,” the mayor’s office reiterates.
The disability pension must be set by state legislation, as it can’t be determined solely by collective bargaining. Any agreement that costs the city money must be approved by Albany.
The PBA pushed for a bill to restore the three-fourths pension, and the state Senate passed one by 61-0. The Assembly did not vote on it because it didn’t get a home-rule message from the City Council endorsing it.
“The matter is now closed as the Legislature is adjourned,” the mayor’s office says.
The union says it will continue to pursue the issue in Albany. It also doesn’t want improving disability benefits “used as a club” to get an “inferior collective-bargaining agreement.” The PBA is one of the few municipal unions that has not reached a contract agreement since Mayor de Blasio took office in 2014. Their contract expired in 2010; last November, the state approved an arbitrator’s decision to give officers 1% retroactive raises for 2010-11 and 2011-12. At the time, PBA President Patrick Lynch called those raises “an insult.”