A year after passing legislation that allowed 9/11 first responders to receive paid sick leave for the illnesses they contracted while working at the site of the World Trade Center, State Senators Todd Kaminsky and Martin Golden held a hearing on Sept. 17 to review their bill.
Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, and Golden, a Republican from Brooklyn, knew that the bill had helped hundreds of first responders from across New York. Since its passage, however, they learned that many were left without coverage. For about three hours, the senators heard often emotional testimony from emergency medical technicians, volunteer firefighters and other first responders, who spoke about the health and financial struggles brought on by their post- 9/11 illnesses.
Among the first responders was Franklin Square’s Carl Gerrato, 51, whose testimony Kaminsky and Golden described as a compelling argument in support of all first responders’ receiving the same benefits as those awarded to New York City employees.
“We all go to ceremonies and services on 9/11 where we’re told never to forget, but we can’t just say words,” Kaminsky said. “We need to act. There’s a lot of heroes not being taken care of.”
Out of the system
Gerrato, a Nassau County corrections officer, was a lieutenant in the Franklin Square & Munson Fire Department on Sept. 11, 2001. He and five other volunteers from the department were deployed to the World Trade Center immediately after the attacks, and like most other first responders, Gerrato and his team were exposed to the toxins and heavy dust in the air. He remembers being told not to worry about the air and to focus on saving as many people as he could.
“Our uniforms, our trucks — everything was all covered in dust when we came back,” Gerrato recalls. “But we didn’t think anything of that at the time.”
It wasn’t until years later, as more and more first responders began exhibiting serious illnesses tied to the chemicals released into the air after the twin towers collapsed, that Gerraot became concerned. He began having trouble breathing in 2016. He was eventually diagnosed with five respiratory-related illnesses tied to his time at ground zero, and although he could function normally for day-to-day activities, he was no longer able to work as a corrections officer — a job he had held for more than 20 years. But Gerrato needed money to pay for his health insurance and his mortgage and to provide for his family, so he did the best he could to buy himself some time.
By mid-2017, though, he had used up all his vacation time, his comp days and his sick days. He even had to take money out of his pension to help pay the bills. But he believed that help was on its way, because Kaminsky and Golden were then advocating for their bill to help people like him. When Cuomo signed the bill into law in September 2017, Gerrato tried to use his new sick days from Nassau County, but the county denied the benefits. The most he could receive was $300 a month from worker’s compensation.
“Nassau County told me I don’t qualify under the bill because I went as a volunteer firefighter,” Gerrato said. “Their interpretation was that, ‘We didn’t send you, so we don’t have to pay you.’”
Nassau County officials said that the county does not comment on employee issues.
John Feal, a first responder and founder of the FealGood Foundation, which advocates for 9/11 first responders, said he has seen many people in similar circumstances. Feal had himself been denied benefits after he lost his left foot as a result of the attacks, so in 2005, he started the foundation to ensure that other first responders did not have the same experience.
“9/11 was an unprecedented event,” Feal said, “so we need to take unprecedented action to make sure that everyone is covered.”
Feal reached out to Gerrato and asked him to share his story with Kaminsky and Golden so that they could learn about those not covered in the bill. Golden said he was surprised initially, and explained that the bill was fairly straightforward. It would provide officers and employees of any municipality outside New York City who “participated in the rescue, recovery or cleanup of the World Trade Center, and subsequently developed a qualifying condition, with line-of-duty sick leave.”
“As far as I’m aware, Suffolk County is honoring the spirit of the legislation, so I don’t know why Nassau County wouldn’t,” Golden told Gerrato during the Senate hearing. “You can’t be expected to live on $300 a month.”
Coverage for all
Gerrato’s story was one of several hundred from first responders who are not covered for their sick days. In response, Kaminsky and Golden have renewed their efforts to pass an amendment to the bill. Their latest proposal would allow the state to pay for first responders’ sick days rather than the municipalities that employed them. Although a similar amendment failed to pass the Senate last year, Kaminsky said he believed that with growing bipartisan support, it would become law in January.
“We need to expand it to cover Carl and anyone else on Long Island,” Kaminsky said. “They don’t deserve what’s happening to them.”
Gerrato said he appreciated Kaminsky’s and Golden’s support, and was hopeful that the state could act even before 2019. What concerned Gerrato most in his advocacy efforts was his discovery that he was one of the first Nassau County employees to have this trouble. This makes him feel uneasy about the rest of the crew that went with him on Sept. 11, he said. Of the six who were deployed, three work for the county, including Gerrato’s younger brother, Joseph, a chief of the FS&MFD. Joseph also has an illness from his time at ground zero, and while he can still work, Carl is afraid that his brother could also end up without benefits.
Rather than live off the sick days owed to him until he can retire in four years, Carl wants to again contribute to the county. He knows that he cannot return to work as a corrections officer, and said he had come to terms with that. But he has received clearance from his doctors to do administrative work and wants the county to give him an opportunity to work behind a desk.
In his advocacy for 9/11 first responders, Feal said that his response was typical among first responders. “They want to keep working,” he said.
“I’m not looking for special treatment,” Gerrato said. “I just want everyone to be covered, and I want to be able to work.”