9/11 VCF is a financial lifesaver those rendered disabled by WTC related illnesses
By: Noah H. Kushlefsky
Much has been written in recent years about the serious physical illnesses that have befallen over 33,000 rescue and recovery workers, survivors and residents who breathed in the poisonous dust that blanketed lower Manhattan after the September 11 terror attack and the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers. More than 3,900 cases of cancer have been diagnosed among the participants in the World Trade Center Health Program Nearly 200 FDNY and NYPD members have reportedly died of 9/11 related injuries and conditions, and these numbers are growing.
Less has been written about the effect that the terrible illnesses have had on the lives of these men and women. Many have become disabled from work and are unable to support their families on meager monthly disability payments. Family homes have fallen into foreclosure. The terror attacks left in their wake a trail of financial ruin affecting many brave men and women who responded to the attacks and others who had the misfortune of living or working on the tiny piece of the United States that happened to be the target of an attack on our country.
The Zadroga Act was passed to give financial assistance to those who can prove that they have suffered economic losses as a result of injuries caused by the September 11 attacks. The Victim Compensation Fund, run by the United States Department of Justice weighs proof of 9/11 related disability and proof of financial losses like lost earnings, and awards an amount of money to try to put the claimants in the same financial position they would be in had they not become disabled by the terror attacks.
Generally speaking, the VCF looks at what the claimant was earning before disability, looks at other sources that provide disability payments (like workers compensation and Social Security Disability), and issues an award letter that makes up the difference, if any, so that the claimant can continue to pay their family’s bills, rent, mortgage, tuition, other living expenses, etc.
Because the VCF when finally approved by Congress was underfunded, claimants are initially given only 10% of the amount awarded. For many, this all goes to pay bills that are long delinquent, with hopefully something left over to make it through the next couple of years. If the VCF is not fully funded, in 2017 claimants will receive another partial payment that will cover their financial needs for a few more years. Without full finding many of the thousands of people the Zadroga Act is supposed to help will find themselves back in the same dire financial situation they were in before the Act was passed.
For example, GR was a sales executive on Long Island. The moment the World Trade Center was attacked he drove into New York City and spent four days digging through the rubble searching for survivors. By 2003 he was diagnosed with multiple pulmonary and respiratory conditions and by 2005 they had become so severe that he was disabled from his job. He was awarded workers compensation at the highest level available, but that totaled only 20% of his pre-disability earnings. He was later diagnosed with cancer. To support himself, his wife and his two young children, he went through his personal savings and cashed out his retirement plan. When his kids began reaching college age he applied for a second mortgage on his home to make ends meet, but the chance of getting the second mortgage was slim because he was months and months behind on the payments for his first mortgage and faced foreclosure. His financial life was saved when he was given a fair award by the VCF. The initial 10% payment went to paying the arrears on his mortgage, assisting his children with college costs and paying for his family’s basic daily needs. Another payment in 2017 will help him get through a few more years, but with his retirement savings gone he and his wife are counting on the full VCF award to keep a roof over their heads and food on their table for the rest of their lives.
In December of 2013, at age 42, SH was diagnosed with brain cancer which has been attributed to World Trade Center exposure. He underwent two brain surgeries and chemotherapy and has been left with severe neurological deficits. He can no longer read and write and has significant memory problems. He has been is unable to work since his diagnosis, let alone care for himself. Not only has he lost a salary of about $70,000 a year, but he also lost health insurance for himself, his wife and his daughter and other benefits like his retirement plan. He requires full time care which is provided by his wife, so she is unable to work any meaningful amount and supplement the $1,822 a month ($21,864/year) that SH receives in Social Security Disability benefits. The family is counting on a VCF award to help pay their basic daily and monthly living expenses because Social Security Disability pays only about 30% of SH’s pre-disability earnings which the family was living on. Anything less than a full VCF award that replaces lost earnings and health insurance will mean that the family will not survive financially, and will likely compromise the care that SH desperately needs.
AE lives in Missouri with his wife and young son. On September 11, 20012 he was a member of the New York Fire Patrol and responded to the attacks on the World Trade Center. He was at the site when the towers collapsed and was thrown down a flight of stairs and suffered a traumatic injury to his aorta which later required multiple surgeries and a pacemaker and is disabling. Despite the injury he spent 51 days at the WTC site searching for victims. He also suffers from serious upper respiratory and pulmonary injuries. He has been disabled from work since he was 41 years old. A few years after his injury the New York Fire Patrol disbanded and AE was not only left unable to work, but also without benefits he expected based on his disability. Before his injury he earned about $55,000 per year. His family has been barely surviving on Social Security Disability benefits which pay about $21,200 per year. According to the United States Government, the poverty threshold for a family of 3 is $20,600. AE’s heroism on 9/11 has resulted in his family living close to poverty. A VCF award replacing his lost earnings will help return his family back to their modest comfortable life. Less than full payment of that award will cast them back close to poverty in a few years.
OD lives outside of Atlanta, Georgia. In 2001 she worked in a retail store across the street from the World Trade Center and was caught in the plume when the towers collapsed. She was also called back by her boss two weeks after the disaster to clean the dust and debris from the inside of the store. In 2010 she was diagnosed with metastatic thyroid cancer which has required multiple surgeries. She has been found disabled by the Social Security Administration. At the time of her diagnosis she had three children, ages 6, 8 and 14. A partial payment of her VCF award will provide her family with a few years of living expenses, but without full lost income compensation she and her children will find themselves back in financial despair with an uncertain future.
CS lives in Alabama with her two children. Her husband worked as a union laborer at the World Trade Center Disaster site. He earned about $50,000 per year. In 2003 he developed severe respiratory conditions which were found disabling by the Social Security Administration. He also received a union disability pension. In 2010 he was diagnosed with World Trade Center related lung cancer. He died as a result of the lung cancer in 2013. Her husband’s death has led to dire financial circumstances for CS and the children. His disability pension ended at his death. Desperate for money to buy groceries and pay bills, CS applied for an expedited hardship award from the VCF and was given enough to get by. She is still waiting for a decision on her compensation claim. Partial payment of her eventual award will certainly help her pay bills and raise her children for a time, but only full payment of her award will assure her family financial solvency.
These are only a handful of the hundreds of stories of people whose lives have been diminished physically and financially by the 9/11 terror attacks.
Our nation owes the men and women who performed heroically in response to the attacks, and those who survived the attacks, more than our gratitude and our concern. We have a moral duty to meet the financial promises that the Zadroga Act has made to our fellow Americans. To do anything less would be a victory for the perpetrators of this terrible crime against our nation.
Noah H. KushlefskyNoah Kushlefsky joined Kreindler & Kreindler LLP in 1987 and serves as a Managing Partner of the firm. He brings a wealth of experience and expertise to every case, including representing victims of aviation accidents, wrongful death, and, perhaps most notably, victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.