Court-Officer Unions Get Backing on Disability Bill

by | Oct 29, 2019 | Updates

Vetoed 4 Times by Cuomo

Article from The Chief by RICHARD KHAVKINE


Union presidents representing court employees, who have long lobbied for improved accidental-disability pensions for their members, recently gained a prominent advocate in Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks, who endorsed the proposal in a letter to Governor Cuomo’s Special Counsel.

Although the measure passed both houses of the Legislature by wide margins last year, it was vetoed by the Governor—for the fourth time.

‘Crucial Functions’

Outlining the “crucial functions” court officers provide in terms of security and “the inherent hazards” they face, Judge Marks wrote that his office “urges approval.”

“We believe that this measure would benefit the Judiciary,” he wrote in his Oct. 2 letter.


The legislation, sponsored by Assemblyman Peter Abbate and Senator Andrew Gounardes, both of Brooklyn, if enacted would give Tier 3, 4, 5, and 6 officers in the court system tax-free pensions equaling 75 percent of their final average salary, minus Workers’ Compensation, if they were unable to return to their jobs as a result of an assault or other disabling injury on the job.

Currently, Court Officers get one-third of final average salary as their disability pensions if they are assaulted and incapacitated. The union leaders highlighted that Police Officers, Firefighters, Sanitation Workers and Correction Officers all have the three-quarters disability benefit.

Peter Piciulo, the president of the Court Officers Benevolent Association of Nassau County, citing a hypothetical scenario, said that should officers from Nassau County Police, the Sheriff’s Department and County Courts all get assaulted during an arraignment, “and all three officers get hurt, we’re the only ones not covered.”


Frustrating Paradox


“We’re covered if a ceiling tile falls on us, but not if we’re actually doing our jobs,” he said.

Of the 800 members his union represents, Mr. Piciulo estimated that roughly 40 percent would have access to the benefit, including 280 Court Officers.

Despite his past vetoes, union leaders were encouraged by the Governor’s spirited support for law-enforcement during his re-election campaign last year and were hopeful he would at last sign the bill.

But in his December veto message of that legislation and several other bills that would have provided enhanced benefits to public employees, Mr. Cuomo called it fiscally imprudent.


‘A Substantial Burden’


“As the Legislature has failed to appropriate any funds to pay for these benefits, I cannot support a package of bills that would necessarily impose a substantial and unplanned burden on New York State taxpayers,” the Governor said.

His office did not respond to an inquiry regarding the legislation.

Mr. Piciulo was among four union leaders who signed an Aug. 30 letter in which they argued that his reasoning was erroneous. Although the bill’s actuarial note estimates that “the average per person cost will be approximately three (3) times salary,” they stated that in all likelihood “very few members” would be affected by the legislation.

Judge Marks, in his letter, said the cost “is certain to be negligible,” adding that “the number of occasions where accidental disability benefits have been sought by court officers in the past is very small.”

Since he joined his union’s staff as a delegate in 2000, Mr. Piciulo said he could recall just two officers, both Sergeants, who would have benefited from the disability payment. Instead, both are getting pensions equaling one-third of their pay—and having those allowances taxed—which he said was insufficient to live on Long Island.


A Priceless Benefit


Peter Meringolo, the chairman of the NYS Public Employee Conference, which is comprised of 82 unions representing public employees, said the Governor’s argument that the benefit would amount to a pension enhancement was illogical. Notwithstanding that, he said, the benefits to officers’ morale would far outweigh the cost of the legislation.

Bill Dobbins, the president of Suffolk County Court Employees Association, said the letter’s signatories, who also included Glenn Damato, the president of the New York State Court Clerks Association, and Dennis Quirk, the president of the New York State Court Officers Association, met just after Labor Day with the Governor’s staff to discuss the legislation.

“We never had that opportunity before,” he said. “They were very, very receptive. All the (union) presidents got to speak. They heard us and they seemed very genuine.”

The legislation, he said, doesn’t write a blank check. This opens the door for court officers or clerks to get what they really deserve. Right now the door is shut.”

The president of the New York State Supreme Court Officers Association, Patrick Cullen, had actively campaigned for support from Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Judge Marks.


‘More Than Happy’


“I’m more than happy,” he said. “It’s important that we go about it with the full support of the court system.”

He said he was especially pleased that Judge Marks had emphasized the minimal cost associated with the legislation should it become law. “It’s not something that’s cost-prohibitive,” Mr. Cullen said.

He said he would discuss the inclusion of any needed funds in the court system’s budget with administrators.

He said he was also hopeful a meeting with the Governor’s Special Counsel, Elizabeth Garvey, “to discuss the merits [of the bill] and address any concerns the Governor may have.”