Changing Rules to Cover NJ First Responders Who Volunteered on 9/11

Many weren’t acting in the line of duty, but volunteer first responders at the World Trade Center site are now seriously ill and ‘accidental disability’ would ensure their health coverage

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New Jersey lawmakers are working to change disability rules for the retirement plans set up for first responders who are now seriously ill after volunteering at the World Trade Center site following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that killed more than 2,750 people.

A bill that has already been approved by the full state Assembly with bipartisan support would qualify New Jersey first responders for what’s known as an “accidental disability.” That would extend coverage to them even if they were volunteering rather than officially in the line of duty when they assisted the rescue efforts.

Many now suffering from serious illnesses

The measure is likely to add costs to the primary pension funds for police officers and firefighters, according to nonpartisan fiscal analysts from the Office of Legislative Services who’ve reviewed the proposed policy change. But other experts say the impact is likely to be minimal, and lawmakers who support the measure suggest it is the least the state can do to ensure these first responders are well taken care of as they get older.

It’s estimated that hundreds of firefighters and police officers from New Jersey assisted New York’s first responders at the WTC site in lower Manhattan in the hours and days after the attacks.

Many of those who took part in the massive rescue, recovery, and cleanup are now suffering from serious illnesses that have been tied to the conditions that developed at the site, including respiratory diseases and cancer. But not all have been qualified by the state retirement plans for an accidental disability, which pays a larger allowance than an ordinary disability, since most were technically volunteering when they were assisting at the WTC site.

Bill Ricci, a Clifton firefighter, detailed the problem faced by many New Jersey first responders when he appeared before lawmakers earlier this year as they reviewed the proposed policy change for the first time in committee. Ricci said he spent time during his off days at the WTC site after the towers came down, and he now suffers from a condition called sarcoidosis that makes it difficult to breathe, especially during periods of exertion. Unable to work a regular shift, Ricci said Clifton officials informed him he’s technically not qualified for accidental disability because he was volunteering when he went to the WTC site and not officially working for the fire department at the time.

“New Jersey lost many people that day, and many New Jerseyans responded without thinking of their own health,” Ricci said. “I am asking you not to punish my family for my work at ground zero.”

No penalty for bravery

Under the bill that was passed by the Assembly last week, the policy change would apply to both active and retired members of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System (PFRS) and the State Police Retirement System (SPRS). An accidental disability could be provided to a first responder who went to the WTC site “whether or not under orders or instruction by an employer to so participate, in World Trade Center rescue, recovery, or cleanup operations for a minimum of eight hours,” according to the bill.

It also defines the WTC site as “any location below a line starting from the Hudson River and Canal Street, east on Canal Street to Pike Street, south on Pike Street to the East River, and extending to the lower tip of Manhattan.”

Inadequate pension funding has been a perennial issue for the state’s overall public-worker retirement system, and the fiscal impact analysis performed by the OLS for the first-responder disability legislation suggested the policy change would increase the liabilities for both the PFRS and the SPRS. That, in turn, would increase annual employer contributions owed by both the state and local governments, the analysis said.

Accurate projections difficult

But the OLS was unable to determine a specific impact on both the state and local governments because the “number of individuals who would qualify for the benefit provided is not known.”

Iris Udasin from Rutgers University’s Environmental Occupational Health Sciences Institute told lawmakers during the committee hearing earlier this year that it’s estimated that fewer than 1,000 New Jersey residents assisted at the WTC site after the terrorists attacked. Many of those are already qualified to receive full disability benefits because they were working at the time for the New York Police Department or for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, she said.

That means the size of the cohort that would be covered by the proposed New Jersey policy change “is likely not significant,” said Udasin, who is both a physician and a professor at Rutgers. And while their injuries may not have officially been suffered in the “line of duty” after they crossed the river into New York as volunteers, Udasin urged lawmakers to support the bill given the serious health issues that many are now facing.

“These (first) responders put themselves in harm’s way to help us all in a moment of crisis,” she said. “The price that these responders paid with their health is enormous.”