Ground Zero workers claim NYC stalls on disability paperwork, as they battle 9/11-related diseases

Retired Capt. Mike Earley was given a year to live in May; five months later, the New York City Employees’ Retirement System has not approved his application


On May 5, retired EMS Capt. Mike Earley was given a year to live after he was diagnosed with an aggressive pancreatic cancer linked to his time working at Ground Zero.

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Thomas Tracy
New York Daily News

NEW YORK CITY — Retired EMS Capt. Mike Earley is in a paper chase with New York City — and he’s losing.

On May 5, Earley was given a year to live after he was diagnosed with an aggressive pancreatic cancer linked to his time working at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Five months later, the New York City Employees’ Retirement System — commonly known by its acronym NYCERS — hasn’t budged on approving his disability pension, which he says would give him and his family 75% of his salary.

The retired first responder says he’s spent nearly half of his remaining life forking over reams of test results, medical diagnoses and letters from his doctors confirming the fact that he’s terminal.

NYCERS response? They need more, Earley said.

“They’ve received every piece of paperwork Sloan Kettering has on me,” said Earley, 55. “All NYCERS keeps doing is tell me, ‘We’ve received your paperwork, but please send me this now and send us that now.’ At this point I have nothing left to send them.

“This should have been done already,” he said. “But they don’t care about a dying guy’s problems.”

Gary Smiley, a former city paramedic who is the World Trade Center liaison for Local 2507 and has been fighting to get Earley’s disability pension approved, says the countless delays mean one thing: “Everybody is working on the assumption that they are waiting for him to die,” he said of the NYCERS pencil-pushers.

“When presented with a member like Mike, who unfortunately has a horrific diagnosis, there shouldn’t be a need for a medical board to evaluate everything,” Smiley said.

Smiley, a 9/11 first responder, is battling NYCERS over his own disability pension after coming down with chronic health problems from his time at Ground Zero.

“He has a prognosis letter from his oncologist that he has less than a year to live, so why hasn’t he been granted his disability pension?” Smiley asked.

If Earley dies before the disability pension is approved, his family will have to file a death claim with NYCERS, which could take two years to approve.

“Grieving family members have to submit autopsy reports and medical documentation, just so they can confirm that he actually died from his World Trade Center illness,” Smiley said. “It’s disgusting.”

A NYCERS spokeswoman could not comment on Earley’s case, claiming that specific member information was “strictly confidential.”

The agency said 58% of applicants seeking disability pensions receive a determination within 120 days. If it takes longer, “complete submission of medical records is typically a factor.”

“The timeliness of a determination by the medical board is contingent upon timely and complete submission of medical records,” the agency said.

Earley joined EMS in 1991, before its merger with the Fire Department. After 9/11 he spent months assigned to Ground Zero, assisting in recovery efforts and breathing in the toxic air that swirled around the pile.

He retired from EMS in 2019 after 28 years of serving the city.

Two years later, Earley sits around the new home he and his wife bought in Seaford, N.Y., wearing a fanny pack that slowly administers chemotherapy treatments to him. His usual zest for live drains away bit by bit each day.

“I’m beaten up,” he said weakly. “My body just keeps getting beaten up with this poison.”

Earley said he doesn’t know what is going to happen to his family when he’s gone.

His disability pension would at least help pay the mortgage on the family’s new home, so his wife and two daughters, ages 19 and 22, will have a place to call home, he said.

“We bought the house in February and on May 5, I get diagnosed,” Earley said, claiming that FDNY informed NYCERS about his condition within days of his diagnosis. “My wife, she doesn’t have the means to pay the mortgage on her own. So what happens then?

“The city has a lot to learn about caring for the people who took care of the city for last 30 years,” he said.


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