Survivors continue to seek compensation
Yvonne Phang, a professor of accounting at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), taught five classes in the Fall semester of 2001. So in the weeks and months after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks, she was at BMCC a lot – teaching students, preparing classes and breathing in the “acrid” air that made her throat burn. The college resumed classes in October.
In the days after the terrorist attacks, federal officials said the air was safe to breathe, even though it smelled anything but clean. Sixteen years later, in October 2017, Phang was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time, she didn’t make the connection that her cancer could have been caused by breathing in the toxic dust.
“It was so long ago,” Phang told Clarion. But when a friend told her to look into the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF), she began to investigate. Eventually, after talking to a lawyer, she went through the bureaucratic maze of registering. (In order to file a claim with the VCF, she needed to first apply to the WTC Health Program.)
“It’s kind of sad that I had to hear about [the VCF] through a radio advertisement indirectly through a friend, and that the college didn’t take responsibility to tell people about it,” Phang said.
BMCC was directly affected by the terrorist attacks. The college’s Fiterman Hall was destroyed when a building in the World Trade Center complex fell on the hall’s south wall. The college’s main building on Chambers Street is about a half-mile north of where the towers fell. Those who were at BMCC at the time and who continue to work at the college have expressed frustration over the college’s lack of programs or outreach for people suffering from 9/11-related illnesses.
“People are not well. It’s the BMCC community,” said Olivia Cousins, a professor in health education at BMCC. In the summer of 2002 Cousins developed gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and she also has difficulty breathing and post-traumatic stress disorder. “They need to know from BMCC that this registry exists and BMCC needs to tell them, ‘Just sign up.’”
LIMITED BMCC OUTREACH
Both Phang and Cousins, at the time of their interviews, did not recall the college doing any outreach to let the BMCC community know about 9/11 programs that they and others could qualify for, and they were right. The BMCC Human Resources department had not done any outreach in the 17 years after the terrorist attacks, but at the end of March of this year, the college for the first time sent out an informational email to current BMCC faculty and staff. As a result, nearly a dozen people from BMCC contacted one Manhattan law firm representing people with 9/11-related illnesses. The college also plans on mailing former students who were studying at the college during the 2001-2002 academic year. That mailing is expected to be completed by the summer of 2020, just months before the current December 18, 2020, deadline to register a claim with the VCF.
Phang applied for the WTC Health Program in August 2018 and only recently got certified. It will take another year or so for her to find out what kind of claim for financial compensation she will get from the Victim Compensation Fund. Her claim could be drastically lower than what she expected when she registered.
Because of dwindling finances, the Victim Compensation Fund recently announced that pending claims would be paid at 50 percent of their prior value; claims received after February 1 of this year will be paid at 30 percent. Only about $2.3 billion remains in the VCF, which originally started with $7.3 billion – with thousands of unpaid claims still to address. The fund, if no Congressional action is taken, is set to expire near the end of 2020. People diagnosed with a 9/11-related illness will be left with limited compensation.
For many health and safety advocates, the cutoff date for VCF claims seems arbitrary.
“Cancer certainly won’t stop afflicting the 9/11 community any time soon, and especially not on its current expiration date of December 18, 2020,” said Michael Barasch, an attorney with Barasch, McGarry, Salzman and Penson, one of the law firms representing people suffering from 9/11-related illnesses, including BMCC faculty and staff, like Phang and Cousins, who have developed 9/11-related illnesses. “It would be a gross injustice to treat people in the 9/11 community differently and award less compensation based on the random date of their cancer diagnosis,” said Barasch.
Under the Zadroga Act, the federal legislation that authorized the VCF and the WTC Health Program, people diagnosed now and in the future with a 9/11-related illness will be treated and monitored in the WTC Health Program at no cost to them until 2090. Phang will be monitored and treated through the WTC Health Program.
For Phang, whose cancer nearly forced her into early retirement, VCF compensation and other benefits mattered greatly. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she had exhausted her sick leave because of recent surgeries. Out of money and denied an emergency loan, she could not afford to be off the CUNY payroll and on disability. That’s when she thought that she might have to go into early retirement and dip into her savings. Through the Catastrophic Sick Leave Bank Program, a PSC benefit, she was able to get sick leave that was donated by her colleagues while she was treated for her cancer. However, she knows that not everyone is that lucky.
TIP OF THE ICEBERG
“[BMCC] was within the dust cloud area and was completely contaminated with dust and debris of over 100 different WTC contaminants,” Liam Lynch, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health’s program coordinator for the WTC Health Program, told Clarion. Lynch said that many diseases will take years to manifest. “More conditions will bloom in the coming years. We’re seeing the tip of the iceberg, and it’s going to get a lot worse.”
Asthma, acid reflux and cancer are some top certified conditions in the WTC Health Program, he said.
Advocates for the extension of the VCF have been lobbying federal lawmakers for a new bill that would fully fund and extend the VCF.
“Peoples’ eyes are running. People are starting to have splotches on their faces. People aren’t well,” said Cousins. “There’s still time to get on the [WTC Health] registry.”