Two bills that would expand disability and retirement benefits for court officers in New York have been delivered to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who must decide by midnight Friday if they will become law.
Leaders of two unions representing court officers in the state’s court system are hopeful the legislation will win Cuomo’s approval this year, and one of bills has even earned the support of the Office of Court Administration.
Cuomo has vetoed both bills each year for the past four years, citing concerns about the possible fiscal implications of the legislation. He’s argued in his veto messages that the proposals should instead be addressed in the state budget, if at all. A spokesman for Cuomo said the bills are currently under review.
The first of those bills would allow court officers to claim an accidental disability retirement if they’re physically assaulted or injured while performing their duties. That kind of benefit is currently not available to court officers, despite them being responsible for safeguarding the state’s courts.
If they are injured on the job, those officers are currently only entitled to a smaller disability benefit than, for example, a police officer who’s harmed on duty. Patrick Cullen, president of the New York State Supreme Court Officers Association, said court officers should be able to expect the same benefit from state government as other public employees placed in potentially dangerous situations.
“If there’s a physical altercation with an inmate or any court user—which happens quite frequently—and if somebody is unable to work again, this will provide them the opportunity to be treated the same way as if a police officer found themselves in the same situation,” Cullen said.
Court officers are currently entitled to regular disability if they’re injured while performing their duties. That allows those workers to collect a third of their regular salary while on disability. That would change under the proposed bill, which would permit court officers to collect three-quarters of their regular salary as an accidental disability retirement.
Dennis Quirk, president of the New York Court Officers Association, said Cuomo should consider the work that court officers do in the state’s courts before he decides to veto the bill for a fifth year.
“How is it you want someone to go and do a job, and then if they get legitimately injured, you don’t want to protect them?” Quirk said. “This is not right. There’s no reason the governor should not sign the bill.”
The bill also has the support of the Office of Court Administration. A spokesman said that while there have been few reported incidents in recent years where the proposal would have applied, it would nonetheless benefit the state’s court system for Cuomo to approve the bill.
“We believe that amending the section relating to accidental disability retirement for New York state court officers would benefit the Judiciary,” the spokesman said. “Our 4,000 court officers, representing one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the country, are instrumental in providing for the safety and security of judges, court staff, litigants and jurors on a daily basis in the state’s 350 courthouses. Fortunately, while we have seen that the need to seek this benefit is small, it recognizes the reality that life can change in an instant.”
The second bill would lower the retirement age for court officers from 63 to 62 and allow those officers to retire earlier without an early age reduction in benefits if they were employed in the court system for at least 30 years.
That legislation also aims to create equity in retirement options between court officers and other public employees in a similar line of work, Cullen said. OCA does not have a position on that bill.
When Cuomo and state lawmakers enacted a new state pension tier for public employees hired after April 1, 2012, court officers were left out of an exception that allows certain members to retire early with lower penalties. That exception applies to employees like police officers, firefighters, correction officers and others who have worked a certain number of years in the state pension system.
“We were somehow left out of it,” Cullen said. “We just want equity. These are about things that, for whatever reason, we’ve been left out of. It’s been one of my highest priorities and one of the largest concerns of my membership to get this bill passed.”
The bills have passed both chambers of the state Legislature for four years in a row now, while meeting the disapproval of Cuomo. His veto messages with both pieces of legislation last year had the same theme: the changes would cost the state money that it hasn’t budgeted.
“These bills would provide state and local public employees with a variety of enhanced retirement benefits without offering any funding sources to cover their costs in the current fiscal year or in future years,” Cuomo wrote in both messages. “I have vetoed similar or identical bills in each of the past several years because the costs imposed were not accounted for in the state’s financial plan.”
Cuomo also expressed concerns over the possible costs imposed by the legislation onto local governments, which pay a sizable share of pension costs for public employees. If those governments have to foot the bill, Cuomo argued, that could lead to higher property taxes and other local budgeting concerns.
Quirk said they will continue to push Cuomo and state lawmakers to include the legislation in the state budget if he chooses to veto it again this year, though past efforts to do so have failed. Negotiations on the state’s fiscal plan won’t begin until sometime early next year.
“We’ll see what happens when he vetoes it, and we’ll have to take a look at it,” Quirk said. “We’re going to try to get it into the budget, and we’ll try it but he knocked it last time.”
The legislation hasn’t changed since Cuomo’s last veto, but there has been one notable development: Cuomo’s re-election to statewide office this year. Cuomo won the election thanks, in part, to supporters in many of the state’s labor unions. Cullen is hoping his penchant for organized labor, especially this year, will help the legislation earn his signature.
“The governor continuously throughout his re-election campaign said the state has your back to uniformed workers, to working families of this city and state,” Cullen said. “This would be an ‘actions speak louder than words’ type of moment for Gov. Cuomo when it comes to court officers in the state.”
Both bills were sponsored by Assemblyman Peter Abbate, D-Brooklyn, and State Sen. Martin Golden, R-Brooklyn.