These are line-of-duty deaths: Designate public employees’ coronavirus fatalities properly

By: 
JOE BORELLI

Two weeks ago, Quinsey Simpson was as alive as you and I are right now. But as one of New York’s Boldest, he did not have the luxury of working from home as many of us now do. Instead, each day he put on his uniform and badge and punched into his regular shift guarding one of America’s toughest jails, and a local hotspot in the global coronavirus pandemic.

Yet while Mayor de Blasio fretted, the health of uniformed and civilian staff on Rikers Island fell by the wayside. Simpson died last Friday, becoming one of the first New York City Employee Retirement System (NYCERS) members to die from COVID-19. The pension board absolutely must award him the line-of-duty death benefits.

For correction officers, as well as nearly every other municipal employee, the differences in benefits between a line-of-duty death and natural causes are stark. A line-of-duty benefit would grant a surviving spouse the lifetime pension of their deceased partner. If, on the other hand, COVID-19 is deemed a natural cause, a one-time insurance payout worth a fraction of that amount would be given. This would never make up for the loss of a breadwinner’s salary and future pension benefits.

The question is whether NYCERS will acknowledge that Simpson contracted the virus at Rikers. I urge them to do so, and thus set the precedent that those municipal employees who are forced to work have some ease of mind over their family’s security.

Given the daily danger of first responders’ jobs, their labor unions have made the fight for significant line-of-duty death benefits a priority over the years.

Last week brought the death of NYPD Detective Cedric Dixon, and this tragic case will soon serve as the barometer for the New York City Police Pension Fund. However, we know from the long fights over funding the 9/11 cancer bills and for presumptive heart bills, that even when it comes to our cops, firefighters and EMTs, these are not granted as a matter of course. With thousands of members of the FDNY and NYPD now testing positive, there will sadly be no way to avoid this looming debate.

Still, the majority of city and state employees who have already succumbed to COVID-19 are not first responders. We have seen mechanicscustodial staffprincipalsDOT administrators, and a cache of MTA transit workers pass away. We have witnessed entire sanitation garages shuttered for cleaning after mass outbreaks, and our public hospital staff operates in what’s been termed a “petri dish.” For nearly all of these employees, their contracts provide greater death benefits in the event they are killed in the line of duty.

For example, a bus operator under the latest Transport Workers Union contract would be entitled to a half-million-dollar payout if COVID-19 were ruled line-of-duty. However, if it were considered a natural cause, a grieving family would receive just 10% of that.

It would be tough to justify calling anything about the coronavirus pandemic “natural,” especially not the extraordinary measures taken to prevent spread on city buses. Still, each passenger is a potential exposure for the drivers we desperately need to keep our city running. This is the definition of duty.

We may need legislation from Albany and a home-rule message from the City Council to clarify COVID-19 death benefits. Several legislators, including myself, have already begun working the process.

That does not always go smoothly. But for all politicians at the city and state level who are struggling to find purpose and relevance in a seemingly powerless legislative fight against the coronavirus, this is the battle to join.

New Yorkers should keep this issue in mind as they cheer on our essential workforce each evening. I can assure you, all of these men and women are beginning to think about this grim reality and what it would mean for their family. Let’s all make some noise to ease their true burden.

Borelli represents Staten Island in the City Council.