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The Chief Leader
EMTs Union Leading Charge on Bill Giving Judges More Say on Pensions
By MARK TOOR
A disability lawyer and the leader of the union that represents Paramedics and Emergency Medical Technicians have teamed up to try to speed the resolution of cases in which a State Supreme Court Justice determines that a pension board has unreasonably denied a three-quarter-pay disability pension to a worker who was injured on the job.
Right now, in most cases a judge is limited to sending such a case back to the board for reconsideration, which can set off a bouncing-ball effect.
Board Can Refuse Again
The pension board, usually acting on the advice of its medical board, can deny the request again. Now the worker, who may have a half-pay pension or none at all, must spend $8,000 to $10,000 to hire another lawyer and wait even longer for relief.
Chet Lukaszewski, the attorney, and Israel Miranda, president of District Council 37 Local 2507, announced a bill March 16 that would allow judges to simply order the pension board to grant a disability pension to a worker who has been disabled by an on-the-job injury.
They say the change would help even out the imbalance of power between pension board and workers. Social Security and Workers’ Compensation judges have the power to grant awards, Mr. Lukaszewski said.
The bill is being sponsored by State Sen. Martin J. Golden, who left the NYPD in 1983 after he was seriously hurt while making an arrest, and Assemblyman Peter J. Abbate Jr., who chairs the Assembly Committee on Governmental Employees.
‘Levels Playing Field’
Under current law, “a court cannot grant them the pension, no matter how outrageous the judge thinks the no-disability finding is,” Mr. Lukaszewski said in an email. “This really levels the playing field and makes the funds not above the powers of judges, and will help ensure no one falls through the cracks when a medical board flat-out gets it wrong.”
“No one should have such power that they can’t be overruled,” Mr. Miranda said in an interview.
“Our members put themselves on the line every day,” he added. “Many have been denied disability pensions by medical boards although evidence clearly indicates they’re disabled.”
Workers who are badly hurt on the job “have no choice but to put in for a disability pension,” he said, noting that the agency that employs the worker has usually declared him or her disabled. That means the worker cannot fulfill the standard functions of the job.
Often Forced Out
In most cases, he said, disabled workers are forced to leave. Mr. Lukaszewski said that under civil-service law, people can be terminated for a medical inability to return to work.
Mr. Miranda said that most of the three-quarter-pension requests filed by his members are denied and that he believes other unions have the same experience.
“The majority of municipal employees are put at risk of losing their jobs and losing and having no pension at all, and no medical benefits, and having to try and pay an attorney to fight for them for years and years,” Mr. Lukaszewski said.
“Many may eventually begin to collect a reduced, vested pension in the future, if and when they reach the point where they would have been able to collect a service pension. But before that occurs they will collect no pension and they and their family will have no medical benefits.
“People literally lose their homes and life savings as a result of the current loophole, which this bill, if it becomes law, will close.”
NYCERS Not Talking
A spokeswoman for the New York City Employees’ Retirement System, which handles pension requests for Mr. Miranda’s union, said the board does not comment on proposed legislation.
Mr. Miranda said the change in the law would have no negative effect on taxpayers, since the retirement funds depend primarily on workers’ contributions.
Mr. Lukaszewski said he has been urging the change in pension law for years. “The person who finally made it happen was Israel Miranda,” he said. “I presented the idea to him and the proposed language, and he really got behind it and took it to Sen. Martin Golden and Assemblyman Peter Abbate, who have sponsored it. They and their teams are spearheading it in Albany.”
“Our members have been complaining for years about the NYCERS process,” Mr. Miranda said. “We’ve met with them, but nothing has changed because they have absolute authority.”
Gives Judge Discretion
The proposed change would add language saying that a judge, “upon a finding that [the pension board’s] determination was arbitrary and capricious and not supported by substantial evidence, may annul the determination and grant the petitioner the requested disability pension."
Under current law, a judge has that power only when the pension board declares that a worker is not disabled as far as his or her job title goes. Judges have no such authority in cases where the board decides the worker is disabled but the disability is not job-related.