Families of Sanitation Workers, Unsung 9/11 Heroes, to Get Health Benefits

Jeffery C. Mays

After the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center, thousands of uniformed and civilian city employees assisted the police and firefighters with the rescue and recovery efforts.

Corrections officers helped people evacuate Lower Manhattan; traffic agents directed vehicles; engineers checked the safety of surrounding buildings; sanitation workers sorted through debris at Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island.

That work exposed them to toxic dust and smoke that have been linked to respiratory illnesses, heart disease and potentially cancer. But unlike police officers and firefighters, if those city workers died of illnesses related to Sept. 11 after they retired, their survivors were not eligible for health insurance benefits.

With the 18th anniversary of the attacks falling on Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to change that. He will introduce a measure that would make the families of 5,000 city employees eligible to receive those benefits.

“On our city’s darkest day, thousands of city employees answered the call. They didn’t hesitate,” Mr. de Blasio said. “We need to be there for their families, now and always.”

The mayor projected that the proposal, which requires City Council approval, would cost the city no more than $3 million per year.

The estimate of 5,000 potentially eligible employees is based on those who have filed notice that they might be eligible for benefits because they participated in Sept. 11 search or recovery efforts. Survivors include a spouse or domestic partner, children under the age of 19 and children who are full-time college students up until they complete their degree or until the age of 26.

Under current law, the families of corrections officers and sanitation workers are only eligible to receive city health benefits if their loved one dies of a Sept. 11-related illness while they are on active duty. The families of other civilian employees such as engineers, auto mechanics and traffic agents whose deaths are related to a Sept. 11 illness cannot currently receive city health benefits.

Sherif Soliman, senior adviser to the first deputy mayor, said there were “gaps in certain benefits" in laws relating to helping those suffering from Sept. 11-related illnesses, as city officials begin to see more of those sicknesses over time.

“It’s important that we close these gaps to support them and their families. This legislation would do just that for survivor health benefits,” Mr. Soliman said.

The legislation received strong initial support from Corey Johnson, the speaker of the City Council, who said he was “looking forward” to reviewing the proposal.

“The Council is committed to ensuring that the families and loved ones of all 9/11 victims are treated with dignity and fairness,” Mr. Johnson said.

Allowing the survivors of city workers to get medical benefits from the city would provide parity with uniformed city employees and allow families to receive benefits more quickly than if they applied through the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. The fund has deemed almost 25,000 claims as eligible, including almost 19,000 from those considered responders.

Harry Nespoli, president of Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association and chair of the Municipal Labor Committee, said sanitation workers were among the many unsung heroes of the attack.

Sanitation workers cleared a path through debris so other emergency workers could get to the site of the collapsed buildings. In the weeks after the attack, sanitation workers helped clear out rotten food in the cafeterias of downtown buildings. Mr. Nespoli estimated that there were 300 sanitation workers in Lower Manhattan in the weeks after the attack.

When the debris was floated out to Staten Island, sanitation workers helped sort through it.

“We didn’t lose anybody that day, thank God for that, but we were down there chucking away,” Mr. Nespoli said. “Now, I’m getting calls from people who are retired that are coming down with the 9/11 illnesses.”