New York laws aim to help September 11th workers


 

As we approach the 5th anniversary of September 11, 2001, the work of organizations to assist responders with health problems continues. It is probable that you have seen in local newspapers reports on responders who are now ill or who have died as a result of time spent at Ground Zero in rescue, recovery or clean up efforts. The United Church of Christ and Church World Service with local New York partners -- New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) and Mt. Sinai World Trade Center Clinic -- along with many others have continued to lobby for workers' compensation for responders. On Monday, August 14, the Governor of New York signed into law a compensation registry which will eliminate the 2-year cut-off date for filing a claim. Please share this information within your networks.


September 11 rescue workers now have more healthcare and recovery options available to them after N.Y. Gov. George Pataki signed three bills into law Monday.

The first law eliminated the two-year deadline for Ground Zero workers and volunteers to file a workers' compensation claim for their illnesses, allowing those who missed the deadline to come forward now.

Workers' agencies around the city applauded the decision. "We are gratified that the governor and legislature have taken this step to address pressing needs of thousands of people who are already sick but have missed the deadline for filing a claim," said Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH). "We have no idea how many people who did clean up work will develop symptoms sometime in the future, this legislation will provide them with important medical and wage replacement benefits."

Yet with the applause also comes concern about how the plan will be enacted.

According to the news release from Gov. Pataki's office, "under the current Workers' Compensation Law, a worker who is injured on the job as the result of a specific, identifiable workplace incident must file a workers' compensation claim within 2 years of the date of the accident. Workers who develop illnesses as a result of exposure to harmful elements directly related to their employment are classified as having sustained an occupational illness. The deadline for 'Occupational Disease' cases extends to 2 years from the time in which the claimant knew or should have known that the condition is related to his or her employment. Often occupational illnesses do not manifest themselves for a long period of time.

"The creation of a new law eases the 2-year statute of limitations for those individuals who became ill after the deadline had passed by designating these claims as 'occupational illnesses.' It further enables claimants whose illnesses developed over time, and whose claims were previously rejected due to the statutory deadline, to seek reconsideration by reopening his or her claim."

For this registry the new law creates, the deadline to sign up is Aug. 14, 2007. Shufro and other responders say the need now is for an aggressive outreach campaign to make sure eligible recovery workers and volunteers who moved away from New York City are aware of the new plan.

In a news release sent out from the United Church of Christ National Disaster Response, the urgency of making sure this news is publicized was clear:

"Your help is needed to be sure that this information goes to all of your volunteers that were in New York and to any other persons that you know spent time at Ground Zero. Workers (paid and volunteer) have one year to register - please note that if they do not register in this year as having been at Ground Zero, they will not be eligible in the future to apply for workers' compensation if needed."

The United Church of Christ has worked closely with NYCOSH and the Mt. Sinai World Trade Center clinic since Sept. 11 to support the needs of affected workers and volunteers. NYCOSH has already created a fact sheet about the new law for widespread distribution.

The responders also hope the state supports every aspect of the recovery for the affected workers. "Most of the individuals eligible for worker's compensation also face complex issues related to adjusting their lives now that they have partial or permanent disabilities," said Maggie Jarry, director of disaster recovery and advocacy for New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS). "There is a significant need for coordination of human services in response to these workers' needs."

The second law signed by Pataki allows "application for accidental death benefits to families of police officers, firefighters, and other uniformed personnel who participated in the rescue, recovery and clean-up operations at the World Trade Center site."

The third law also reinstates benefits, according to a statement from Pataki's office, as it eliminated the statute of limitations to allow retired rescue and recovery workers to later have their retirement status reclassified as accidental disability if illnesses related to their Sept. 11 work appear later.

In addition to the three new laws, Pataki announced a health care plan for recovery workers he says will "ensure that 9/11 rescue workers receive prompt access to the benefits and health care they rightfully deserve under the state's workers compensation system." Two components of that plan include ensuring access to critical care while workers claims are being processed and expediting access to medical treatments that generally require pre-approvals.

"The brave men and women suffering from hidden health issues stemming from September 11th should not be denied benefits because of a statutory time limit that they had no hope of meeting," said Gov. Pataki in the news release.

"As it is clear that many champions of 9/11 have developed debilitating illnesses over time resulting from their selfless acts, these New Yorkers need to know that New York State will not abandon them. These new laws and this comprehensive package opens doors and removes obstacles to obtaining benefits expeditiously. While we may never be able to fully repay our heroes, this is a significant step in providing for the needs of many as they nurse themselves back to health."

To date (August 22, 2006), the New York Workers' Compensation Board has received 10,779 claims related to the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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