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Deadline Looms for Injured WTC Volunteers

 Deadline Looms for World Trade Center Volunteers Injured during Recovery:

 

 

Thursday − Sept. 11 − New York State Workers’ Compensation Board will be closing its second extension for sign-ups to the World Trade Center Registry, which attempts to track workers who may request workers’ compensation benefits for 9/11-related injuries and illnesses now or in the future.

 

The expansion followed 2013 legislation signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to expand the list of covered illnesses to include psychological ailments and specific respiratory tract problems and to extend the registration deadline.

 

Despite this effort, for many, the difficulty of the WTC volunteers and workers in winning recognition from the State Workers' Compensation Board after 9/11 remains one of the more tragic facts of New York City’s recovery.

 

The board, as part of its "Tell Us You Were There" campaign, is encouraging both paid workers and volunteers that worked at Ground Zero, Fresh Kills Landfill – where the World Trade Center refuse was stored – the barges, the piers or the city morgue during the recovery period to register before the deadline by filling out and certifying a WTC-12 form.

 

According to Rachel McEneny, spokesperson for the WCB, as of Sept. 4, 1,605 new registrants had signed up, representing a 3% jump in the total registry pool of 41,363. An aggressive "get out the word" campaign from the WCB and advocates for 9/11 rescue and recovery workers has produced a dramatic increase in the filing pace during the past week and a half of the registration drive.

 

"The Board has conducted numerous types of outreach over the years, including television spots, radio announcements, newspaper advertisements and social media events," said McEneny.

 

"We have also held educational sessions for the New York State Police, for example, that were very productive.

 

"Currently, we are advertising the upcoming filing deadline in the NYC media market. Finally, the board has established strong and supportive relationships with the 9/11 community and is working closely with the World Trade Center treatment centers, the 9/11 National Memorial and Museum, advocacy groups such as Voices of September 11, workers’ rights groups, unions and attorneys to ensure all affected workers are aware of the deadline."

 

The destruction of the South Tower and 7 World Trade Center of the World Trade Center Complex in New York City significantly impacted the lives of those both at the scene and watching from afar. In the wreckage, which damaged not only the WTC Complex, but also the Deutsche Bank Building and part of the Borough of Manhattan Community College, 2,753 people died. This count includes 343 New York City firefighters, 84 Port Authority civilian employees, 37 Port Authority Police Department members and 23 New York Police Department officers – many of which were the first responders to what would be recognized as the first belligerent attack on American soil by a foreign power since Pearl Harbor.

 

Clean-up and rescue efforts at the WTC site continued 24 hours a day, seven days a week for eight months. This effort entailed thousands of uniformed and non-uniformed workers and scores of volunteers – which exposed many to toxic materials, extreme heat, physical stresses and mental duress.

 

Additionally, southern Manhattan was subjected to clouds of toxic dust, including significant levels of asbestos, lead, mercury, dioxins and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon.

 

Despite the existence of a volunteer compensation fund, many of these volunteers have yet to receive any workers’ compensation from the state due to the fact they helped with the WTC recovery without being affiliated with a recognized support organization.

 

"There were hundreds of non-uniformed or undocumented Latino workers that fell through the cracks of the workers’ compensation system," said John Feal, a 9/11 first responder who lost part of his foot during the rescue effort.

 

Feal is currently the founder and president of the FealGood Foundation, which works to ensure that those injured in rescue, relief or clean-up efforts related to the 9/11 attacks receive due assistance.

 

"To me, this is unethical and un-American. Everybody was working together – either uniformed or nonuniformed – and everyone deserves the same treatment."

 

The WCB's program has two parts, as explained by Ben Chavet, Executive Director of 9/11 Health Watch. Firstly, workers' compensation claims have a two-year statutory limit from the time of the injury. As new claims of WTC-related illnesses continue to emerge, these claims – under typical WCB rules – would be disqualified. The registry is meant to prevent future cases from expiring prior to being filed.

 

Secondly, New York state does not typically offer workers’ compensation benefits to volunteers. As volunteers are unpaid, they do not have an employer to pay into the workers’ compensation fund on behalf of their service. This left volunteers exposed to medical complications from their service without relief from the WCB.

 

"Prior to federal action, there was no access at all to medical or loss-time relief for the 9/11 volunteers," said Chavet. "What exists now had to be fought for."

 

In 2002, Congress authorized $50 million to provide workers’ compensation benefits for volunteers who participated in the WTC effort. This fund, the WTC Volunteer Fund, is now managed by the Triad Group. The WCB, however, gave preference to volunteers from recognized volunteer organizations such as the Red Cross, while ignoring "off-the-street" volunteers without an organizational affiliation who offered assistance.

 

In June, the Appellate Division of the state Supreme Court ruled that the WCB cannot deny a claim for benefits simply because the volunteer was not affiliated with an "authorized rescue entity." While the board is actively reviewing denied claims from formerly disqualified volunteers, there are many thought  to have been discouraged from applying at all.

 

"A lot of people have no clue this is there for them," said Feal to Newsday.

Currently, 139 volunteers receive benefits from the volunteer fund with 407 people overall having collected benefits, as reported by the WCB. The board claimed to have found nine additional cases of unaffiliated volunteers, with three of the cases pending before the Appellate Division.

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