When Bronx EMT Vanessa Rodriguez spent close to a year collecting body parts at Ground Zero in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, she never realized the toxic dust she inhaled would later give her stage-three cancer.
Two decades later, the now-disabled mother of two is facing termination from the FDNY and preparing to apply for welfare after she learned the “unlimited” sick leave she thought she was entitled to under a 2019 state bill is not unlimited after all, despite what politicians promised.
“I thought that the city would take care of us,” Rodriguez, who lost her job in May, told The Post during a recent interview.
“I feel left out, like, ‘Here you go. You did your job. Now get out.’ It’s just so unfair the way they are handling things.”
Rodriguez, 47, is one of a half-dozen or so FDNY EMS members who learned this summer they’ll be fired for being out sick for more than year with 9/11-related injuries under the state’s “unlimited” sick leave law for public workers who responded to the terrorist attack.
When the FDNY informed the workers they’ll be canned if they don’t come back to work, many of them were in the midst of lengthy legal battles with the New York City Employee Retirement System, or NYCERS, to obtain an early “three-quarters” disability pension.
But the applications have been denied, some repeatedly, and experts say the court battles can last for years for FDNY EMS members, leaving them trapped in a bureaucratic limbo between sick leave and retirement that wreaks financial ruin on their lives.
“The World Trade Center population has always been looked on as a very, very cherished group of individuals,” said Gary Smiley, the World Trade Center liaison for Local 2507, the paramedics and fire inspectors union.
“I don’t understand why you want to hurt these folks more than they’ve already been hurt. They responded to what they thought was a plane crash, but which turned into a nightmare that 21 years later continues to be a nightmare. Why do you want to add to these folks’ nightmare by not protecting them?”
As many as 200 EMS personnel who responded to the terror attacks and are either still working or on temporary leave with 9/11-related injuries could soon find themselves on the chopping block as well, said Smiley.
“You have the potential of causing over 200 people to be financially destitute,” said Smiley.
“I’m afraid this is going to turn into a tragedy.”
A legal gray area
The unlimited sick leave law, signed by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo on the 18th anniversary of 9/11, granted various city employees who were injured responding to the attack the same unlimited policy their uniformed counterparts at the NYPD and FDNY were entitled to.
State Sen. Andrew Gounardes (D-Brooklyn), one of the bill’s sponsors, celebrated the law as the end to “heartbreaking health struggles” and endless negotiations for health benefits the responders sorely needed after developing a range of deadly illnesses from their time on the pile.
But the FDNY and the city’s Law Department claimed the legislation doesn’t actually guarantee “unlimited” sick time. They said Article 71 of the state’s civil service law, which allows agencies to fire workers who’ve been out with job-related disabilities for more than a year, supersedes the state bill.
The FDNY said it would be ludicrous to expect any public agency to indefinitely pay an employee that isn’t working for years on end, regardless if the injuries are 9/11 related or not.
The agency noted the EMS personnel facing termination have been out sick for well over a year and blamed NYCERS for denying the workers their early retirements and forcing them to wage costly legal battles despite their career-ending disabilities.
“We have been advised that each of these members applied for a disability pension through NYCERS (New York City Employee Retirement System) and were denied.
“If these members wanted to return to work, they could return to our Bureau of Health Services tomorrow and begin the process of being reinstated, and offered a reasonable accommodation,” an FDNY spokesperson said in a statement.
“We have explored as many options as possible to keep these members on our payroll. We have made numerous attempts to avoid separation, and have exhausted all of our options.”
During a recent interview, Gounardes said he wasn’t sure if Article 71 supersedes the bill he sponsored, calling it “a little bit of a wrinkle,” but said the FDNY’s decision to move ahead with termination is “shameful” and “inconsistent with the spirit of the law.”
“Unlimited sick leave is unlimited sick leave, and that intent was really clear,” said Gounardes.
“The workers should not be penalized because it takes a year-plus to get their disability review completed. That’s not the worker’s fault, that’s the pension system’s fault.
“Shame on whoever the mid-level paper pusher is who’s doing this.”
Smiley insisted the FDNY and Law Department’s argument that Article 71 supersedes the state bill is a legal gray area that’s yet to be argued before a judge.
“Nowhere in the [unlimited sick leave] bill does it state that it’s other than unlimited. Nowhere does it state that after one year’s time, you’re terminated,” said Smiley.
“Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been called the unlimited sick leave bill. It would have been called the World Trade Center one-year bill.”
‘I really feel betrayed’
Tim McEnaney, who runs a law firm specializing in New York’s three-quarters disability pension, said EMS members see “disproportionately negative results” when applying for an early retirement from NYCERS compared to “any other uniformed service in the city.”
“You have to have metastasizing cancer or a leg off or missing an arm, or something so irrefutably disabling that [NYCERS] would be a complete laughingstock to the world [for denying the application]. Other than that, you’re getting denied,” said McEnaney, whose law firm Goldberg & McEnaney represents two of the EMS members interviewed by The Post.
“And let’s say you don’t have an attorney. If you don’t have an attorney, they don’t even look twice at your application. It’s denied.”
Rodriguez, the Bronx EMT, knows that struggle all too well. Since 2014, NYCERS has denied her application for an early retirement six times.
In 2008, she was diagnosed with stage 3 angiosarcoma and while chemotherapy and radiation later put her in remission, the cancer and the procedures she had to fight it took a grave toll on her body.
She still suffers from post-mastectomy chronic pain syndrome, a condition called osteomalacia, which softens the bones, peripheral neuropathy and degenerative disc disease, she said.
In 2014, she was determined to be “partially permanently disabled” by the FDNY.
“Functionally she is unable to grip. She cannot lift. She has difficulty with pins and needles and numbness into her fingers and toes. She cannot grasp the stretcher,” Dr. K. J. Kelly, the chief medical officer for the FDNY at the time, wrote in a report after Rodriguez was examined.
“She cannot kneel or bend and would have difficulty carrying out all essential tasks of an EMT.”
Rodriguez went back to work as a dispatcher but when desk work also proved too taxing, she went out on unlimited sick leave in 2019 as she continued to fight with NYCERS.
She currently has three options – continue her costly legal battle with NYCERS, take an early retirement where she’d get half her pension, or about $25,000 a year, or return back to work for four years so she can get her full pension, which she said she is unable to do.
“My body is deteriorating as time progresses, chemo induced, radiation induced, therapy induced, medication induced. I don’t understand what they’re doing,” said Rodriguez.
“Soon I’ll be applying for welfare, Medicaid, whatever the government provides.”
Julio Marrero, 55, is a Bronx-based EMS captain who spent a month collecting body parts at Ground Zero and now suffers from 9/11-related post traumatic stress disorder.
His mental health was worsened in June 2020, when Lt. Matthew Keene, who worked with Marrero at EMS Station 17 in the Bronx, shot himself in the head.
Marrero went out on unlimited sick leave soon after, only to learn on July 8 he’d be fired if he didn’t return to work.
“‘Disappointed’ is a big word for me right now. We ran towards the danger to help people on that day. Despite my injuries and everything I gave, I was proud to do my job for another 20-plus years,” said Marrero.
“It’s unreal to me that I’m going through this. This is really happening to me right now? I dedicated my life to this department, to the city of New York. Why are you doing this? We survived the World Trade Center. We gave so much to you. Why am I being put in a position where I’m being terminated without pay, without health insurance, like a piece of garbage?”
Marrero has been denied from NYCERS once and is in the process of appealing, a process that’s already taken two years, he said.
In the meantime, he plans to live off of his savings until it runs out within the next couple of months.
EMT Judi DePietro, 56, developed a slew of 9/11-related injuries after spending more than a year collecting body parts at Ground Zero, including chronic sinusitis, PTSD, asthma, GERD and sleep apnea.
She’s been on sick leave since 2019 after her panic attacks and breathing issues made it too difficult to work and has been trying to secure her three-quarters benefits with NYCERS ever since.
“I gave every piece of paperwork I had, every certification, and they threw out the case, saying none of my conditions have to do with 9/11,” said DePietro.
“All of a sudden, I’m off payroll … I have a mortgage, bills, car payments. It’s a bad situation. All those months I worked down there without relief, and this is what they’re doing. It makes me feel horrible. It’s very, very disheartening.”
Lt. Conrad Matos, 50, was diagnosed with 9/11-related brain cancer in Dec. 2020 and can no longer drive after having a seizure.
A week ago, he learned he’d exceeded his one year of “unlimited” sick time when he got a call from FDNY brass while on vacation with his wife in Florida.
“He asked me, because he heard background noise, where I’m at right now. I said, ‘I’m in Florida with my wife.’ It’s been three years since we’ve done anything. We’ve decided to take a break and get away from all the stress. He’s like, ‘Obviously you’re feeling better,’” Matos said.
“What does that mean, ‘You’re feeling better’? You’ve got to be kidding me. I almost died for God’s sake. My wife almost lost me.”
Matos is only just now preparing to apply for an early retirement and in the meantime, plans to live off of his wife’s salary as a nurse.
“Honestly, I can’t go back. I’ve been trying to go back and there’s no way to go back,” said Matos.
“This job, they don’t take care of their own. I really feel betrayed … I didn’t think I was going to be in this position.”
Jeff Goldberg, a partner at Goldberg & McEnaney who represents Rodriguez and DePietro, said the EMS members facing termination wouldn’t need unlimited sick time on the taxpayer’s dime — if they could get their early retirements through NYCERS.
“All of these people would have been gone if NYCERS did their job. They wouldn’t have to worry about getting off payroll. They would have had pension and medical coverage,” Goldberg said.
“And then they could worry about staying alive rather than worrying about how they’re going to pay their kids medical bills or lunch today.”
In response, a NYCERS spokesperson said the agency reviewed 39 “valid” applications for three-quarter disability submitted by EMS members in 2021 and approved 59% of them.
They said they were “unable to comment on specific cases, as member information is strictly confidential.”
If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts or are experiencing a mental health crisis and live in New York City, you can call 1-888-NYC-WELL for free and confidential crisis counseling. If you live outside the five boroughs, you can dial the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or go to SuicidePreventionLifeline.org.
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What Time Will ‘Riverdale’ Season 6 Be on Netflix?
The season finale of Riverdale aired in late July on The CW. Notice we said season finale? Thankfully, the beloved series will return for a seventh season, but, unfortunately, Season 7 will be the final installment of Riverdale.
If you already streamed the current season, make sure to read Alex Zalben’s interview with Riverdale showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa on Decider. If you’re waiting to binge Season 6 on Netflix, well, you better clear your calendar because all 22 episodes are about to drop on the streamer. What time will the sixth season of Riverdale debut on Netflix? What time does Netflix release shows? Here’s everything you need to know.
WHEN IS THE RIVERDALE SEASON 6 NETFLIX RELEASE DATE?
Riverdale Season 6 premieres Sunday, August 7 on Netflix.
HOW MANY EPISODES ARE IN RIVERDALE SEASON 6?
The sixth season of Riverdale consists of 22 episodes.
WHAT TIME DOES NETFLIX RELEASE NEW SHOWS?
Netflix releases new episodes at 3:00 a.m. ET/12:00 a.m. PT.
WHAT TIME WILL RIVERDALE SEASON 6 BE ON NETFLIX?
Netflix is based out of California, so Riverdale Season 6 will be available to stream at 12:00 a.m. Pacific Standard Time (3:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time) beginning Sunday, August 7. If the clock strikes 12:00 (or 3:00 a.m. for folks on the East Coast) and you don’t see the new episodes, give it a moment, hit refresh, and then enjoy the show!
WILL THERE BE A SEASON 7 OF RIVERDALE?
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Actress Anne Heche Suffers Severe Burns After Crashing Car Into Los Angeles Home
According to TMZ, Heche was driving a blue Mini Cooper and had first crashed into the garage of an apartment complex. Residents of the apartment complex tried to get her out of the vehicle but she backed up and sped off.
Footage of Heche speeding down the streets of her neighborhood had been obtained by TMZ as well as her initial encounter at the apartment complex.
In the first clip, you can hear her car crash towards the end. It has been reported that the actress crashed into someone’s home, causing her vehicle and the house to erupt into flames. Heche suffered severe burns and was resisting being taken away in a stretcher. You can also view footage of this via the TMZ article.
It has not been confirmed whether alcohol has been involved in the incident since her condition prevents doctors from performing any tests to determine if she was driving under the influence. She is currently intubated in the hospital but expected to live.
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These are the vulgar license-plate requests the DMV has rejected
Stay CL4SSY, New York!
The state Department of Motor Vehicles nixed 3,752 requests for vanity license plates in the last three years because it deemed them too raunchy, radical or simply ridiculous.
New York’s personalized plates go for $60 initially, and then $31.25 annually for renewal. You can get any plate as long as no one else has it and it’s not offensive.
Odds are a request for a plate that marks a wedding anniversary or shows your allegiance to a team — like METS86 — will pass muster with the DMV gatekeepers.
Vulgarity won’t get you to first base.
So plates with the phrase LFGM — the acronym for Pete Alonso’s “Let’s F–king Go Mets” rallying cry — did not make the cut.
And you won’t see anyone driving around with the custom plates MILFDAD, AS5M4N and WLHUNG.
The DMV also put NICEBUNS, FATFANNY, GOTAPOOP and BENDOVER in the rear-view mirror.
One player unsuccessfully tried to score the plate YESDADDY, to no avail.
The DMV also shot down such dark requests as DEADGIRL, GENOC1DE, S8TAN, DETONATE and MURDERM3.
Getting political is a dead end too — FJOEBIDN, FDTRUMP and CNNLIES were nixed.
LUDEDUDE, NARCO, GOT METH and BLUNT also went up in smoke.
Staten Island attorney Bill Dertinger said his blue 1995 Jaguar SJS was tagged with ESQLTD after his company and his 2014 Porsche had the plate GHOSTGTS because the sleek sportscar was white.
“The plates can make you stand out — which can be a curse or a blessing,” the 54-year-old Dertinger said. “Make sure you don’t cut anybody off.”
There must be a New York Jets fan playing referee at the DMV because a request for the seemingly innocent plate GASE was sidelined. Ex-Jets head coach Adam Gase had an offensive 9-23 win-loss record during his forgettable two-year tenure.
The DMV would not reveal who gives the final yea or nay.
“The DMV reviews all custom license plate requests and works hard to ensure that any combinations that may be considered objectionable are rejected,” said agency spokesman Tim O’Brien.
He said guidelines on what plate combinations are restricted can be found on the DMV website: https://dmv.ny.gov/learn-about-personalized-plates. Approximately 50,000 personalized and custom plates are sold per year, O’Brien said.
The state DMV has rejected 3,752 requests for custom license plates in the last three years because it deemed them potentially offensive. Here are some:
Source: NYS DMV
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