Group urges residents to file workers’ comp claims

By Skye H. McFarlane

When it comes to registering for 9/11-related workers’ compensation, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health preaches a simple maxim: “When in doubt, fill it out.”

NYCOSH and other worker advocacy organizations have initiated a flood of emails, flyers and meetings with community groups to encourage anyone who worked or volunteered Downtown after 9/11 to register for benefits before the extended Aug. 14, 2007 cutoff date. And as NYCOSH representative Carmen Calderon told Community Board 1 members at a Jan. 8 meeting, that includes workers who cleaned out their offices and residents who cleaned their own apartments.

Although these populations face an uphill battle in winning compensation for current or future 9/11-related illnesses, Calderon said that high participation from the community would be vital in both the fight for benefits and the larger campaign to secure 9/11 health funding from the federal government.

“It’s going to be political. They’re going to tell one person that he’s not covered, but are they going to tell thousands?” Calderon said after the meeting.

Although workers must normally file a compensation claim within two years of an incident, the fact that people exposed to the dust and smoke of the World Trade Center collapse continue to develop new or worsening illnesses prompted then-Governor George Pataki to sign a one-year registration extension last August. Anyone who did rescue, recovery or cleanup work in the 12 months following 9/11— in Lower Manhattan south of Canal and Pike Sts., or at related sites such as barges and morgues — is eligible to register. This includes undocumented workers and volunteers from other states and countries. Registration preserves a worker’s right to file for compensation if he or she becomes sick in the future.

According to Calderon, office workers and residents who cleaned their own spaces may qualify for compensation as “volunteers,” since the work they did was unpaid. As yet, there have been no test cases to determine how far the state Workers’ Compensation Board is willing to stretch the term volunteer. Having clear proof of their location and activities after 9/11 will help residents’ cases. Participation in organized group cleanups with non-profits or even tenants’ associations might also strengthen a claim, Calderon said.

A spokesperson for the compensation board did not return calls for comment.

Even if residents have to battle for their volunteer status down the road, Calderon said, registering for benefits now will protect their right to join in the fight. NYCOSH also hopes that a strong registration turn-out will keep the spotlight on 9/11 health issues. The federal government has yet to provide any money to treat Downtown residents or office workers, and on Dec 18, 2006 health officials revealed that the money allocated to treat first responders could run out as soon as summer 2007. On Jan. 8, C.B. 1’s World Trade Center Committee passed a resolution calling on President Bush to immediately fund treatment for all effected populations — a goal that NYCOSH supports.

“This was an attack on the country. The responsibility, it has to go to the federal government,” Calderon said. “Hopefully, [high registration rates] will pressure the state legislators to pressure the federal government to say that this can’t fall on one little state when people are going to be registering from all over the world.”