Career fire fighters across New York state are in a better position, thanks to a concerted effort among affiliates that produced a handful of legislative victories despite an uncertain political climate.
At the end of last year’s legislative session, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed into law bills adding presumption for Parkinson’s Disease, a pension calculation improvement bill, a COLA extender and a bill adding disability for members employed by the military. In one of her first actions in 2022, Governor Hochul signed the Fire Fighter Protection Act banning the use of toxic flame retardant chemicals in furniture and other products.
Each of these bills had been languishing in the New York State Assembly amid a morass of complications, including strict rules on lobbying due to COVID-19 and the swift departure of Governor Andrew Cuomo following allegations of sexual harassment. Before Cuomo resigned, he, too, completed business helpful to fire fighters, signing a bill improving a costly flaw in the New York State and Local Police and Fire Retirement System (NYSPFR).
“We had a logjam of priority legislation and things really seemed to open up once Governor Kathy Hochul took over paving the way for great success,” says 1st District Vice President James Slevin.
Hochul has made clear she supports New York’s fire fighters and made a point to contact Uniformed Firefighters Association Local 94 barely a week after Governor Cuomo announced his resignation in August 2021. She asked how she could be supportive of fire fighters leading up to the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and, in turn, was invited by Local 94 President Andrew Ansbro to attend the 20th Memorial Mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, with the families of the 343 fire fighters who were lost on 9/11 and the families of the hundreds of fire fighters who have died from 9/11 illnesses in the years since 9/11. “Anyone who attended that mass could not help but be overcome by the magnitude of what New York City fire fighters and their families have sacrificed for New York,” says Ansbro. “It was a solemn experience that neither I, Governor Hochul or anyone in attendance will ever forget.”
“This meant a lot to us and showed that she really cares about our members,” says Local 94 Vice President Bobby Eustace. “Governor Hochul has been a friend of ours for a long time, well before she became our governor. She has stood by us, and we continue to stand by her.”
For her efforts, The New York State Professional Fire Fighters Association (NYSPFFA), the Uniformed Fire Officers Association (UFOA) Local 854 and Uniformed Firefighters Association (UFA) Local 94 announced in January their endorsement of Governor Hochul as she seeks reelection for governor. The event was held in Manhattan and General President Edward Kelly attended and spoke as well.
Even with an apparent open door to the new governor’s office, picking priority legislation and moving it through the state legislature required a coordinated effort from the NYSPFFA, UFOA and UFA. Smaller locals also stepped up and assisted with lobbying.
“We worked very hard to be inclusive at the local level and a lot of our smaller locals got involved this time, helping us walk the halls and educating members of the legislature on our issues,” says NYSPFFA President Sam Fresina.
Success in New York was by no means luck. The New York affiliates have worked hard over the years to build relationships with new lawmakers, which can pay dividends as those public officials rise, as did Kathy Hochul, from county clerk to member of the U.S. Congress, to lieutenant governor and then governor.
“Find people just starting out in politics who support working people and respect fire fighters. Nurture the relationship and help them get elected; when they move to higher office keep supporting them,” says Local 854 President James McCarthy. “You cannot just show up when someone becomes governor and expect results. It does not work that way.”
The New York affiliates are already strategizing for the next legislative session, with a focus on passing a retirement equity bill. More than half of NYSPFFA members have pensions covered under Tiers 5 and 6, which offer lower benefits than for members in previous tiers. The bill would bring Tier 5 and 6 pensions closer to equity with the other tiers. The NYSPFFA also will promote a bill to provide it a share of 2% money. The state levies a 2% tax on home insurance premiums, and most of the proceeds of that tax have tended to go to the state volunteer fire fighters’ benevolent association. The NYSPFFA wants some of those proceeds to help fund its important health and safety programs.