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February 09, 2009

Seven of 10 NYC firefighters retire on disability

Firefighting is a potentially dangerous job, but is it nearly three times more dangerous in New York City than in Chicago?

During the past five years, 72 percent of NYC firefighters retired on disability, the New York Post reports. In contrast, the rate in Chicago is about 25 percent.

The law gives firefighters an incentive to seek disability retirements, which pay them 75 percent of their final year's salary, or an average of the last three years of wages. Those who retire after 20 years on a regular pension get only 50 percent.

Both pension payments are exempt from state and local taxes. Disability pensions also are exempt from federal taxes.

"Everybody has been getting a disability. They see it as an entitlement," a top city official sniped. "People have been talking about this and it has become so outrageous."
The Post found nearly three-quarters of 2,219 firefighters who retired since 2004 collect disability pensions.
"We are not embarrassed by this," said Jack McDonnell, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. Danger, injury and illness go along with the job, he said.

Frank Gribbon, a fire department spokesman, said some of the disabled firefighters were injured during 9/11 and its aftermath.
While 264 firefighters retired with lung ailments from 1994 to September 2001, the number since has nearly tripled in the seven years since, Gribbon said. Before 9/11, seven firefighters were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but 75 were diagnosed since the terror attacks, he said.

In addition, 303 firefighters have disability pensions granted under post-9/11 state legislation that presumed many disabilities - from new cancers to respiratory and gastrointestinal disease - were caused after 40 hours of work at Ground Zero. Another 140 had orthopedic injuries. Even before 9/11, Gribbon said, the Legislature passed laws that "presume" that certain cancers, heart ailments and lung disease are job-related, making it easier to retire on disability.

However, "even before 9/11-related health woes devastated the department, the FDNY still ran up a 62 percent disability-pension rate in 2000," the Post notes.

To qualify for a regular half-pay pension, New York City police and firefighters currently must work at least 20 years, with no minimum age requirement.

At the request of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor David Paterson has introduced legislation that would raise the working requirement to 25 years and establish a minimum retirement age of 50 for the city's uniformed forces (but not for cops and firefighters in other pension plans elsewhere in New York State).

Posted by Lise Bang-Jensen

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