|9/11 workers struggle to get
By Chris Bragg
Half a dozen doctors testified on his behalf. Experts on
9/11-related diseases confirmed his claims. A picture of him
working on a smoldering pile of rubble at ground zero offered
Still, for Joe Picurro, it wasn’t enough. The New York State
Workers’ Compensation Board ruled he still hadn’t proven his
health problems were due to his 28 days as a volunteer during
the 9/11 cleanup. He hadn’t even proven he’d actually worked at
the site, they said, saying the photograph could have been
It took two years, five hearings, an appeal to the New York
State Supreme Court and several pleading media appearances
before he thought he finally won.
Picurro looks back with anger on the time and effort it took
for what he calls his victory: a check for $67.71 a week. “They
throw us a bone every once in awhile to appease us,” Picurro
said a few months ago. “The cheapest one possible.”
But then more recently the checks stopped coming and he will
have to go back to court.
More than five years after 9/11, many cleanup workers who
rushed to help the city in its time of need say they have
developed serious physical conditions due to that work: 756
cleanup volunteers and many more paid workers have submitted
claims. Many claimants say, however, the Workers’ Compensation
Board has been slow in helping them get back on their feet.
In seeking a fraction of their income before their illnesses,
workers say they have entered a maze of bureaucracy. They say
it’s difficult to get hearings scheduled, and once they do,
proving their illnesses are related to their 9/11 work is more
difficult than in normal compensation cases.
Joe Picurro at a 2006
Christmas party held by the Feal Good Foundation. Named for
injured 9/11 worker John Feal, the foundation helped the
Picurros buy Christmas presents for their daughter.
Many cases have been pending for years and for some, the
financial strain has grown too great to bear. “We’re numbers,”
said Jeffrey Endean, a 9/11 volunteer and former commander for
the Morris County Sheriff’s Office in New Jersey, “and next to
those numbers are dollar signs that they don’t want to pay off.”
The Workers’ Compensation Board, established in 1914, was a
compromise between workers and employers: New York workers gave
up the right to sue employers for injuries in exchange for
timely compensation and medical care if they were injured on the
For employees of companies hired to do 9/11 cleanup work, and
for the unpaid volunteers who worked under government authorized
rescue agencies, the board is the sole means of resolving
no-fault claims. City employees, such as police officers,
firefighters and sanitation workers, go through a separate
For most cases that go in front of the board, an employer’s
insurance company is responsible for challenging and ultimately
paying off or settling a claim. Volunteer claims, however, are
compensated out of a $50 million grant created shortly after
9/11 by Congress, which by special rule is also administered by
For many of the workers, even getting started in the process
can be difficult. They say it can take months just to get a
Louis Dauerer, president of the Injured Workers Bar
Association, said the board has been “fixated on getting its
number of hearings down” in recent years, adding that it’s
difficult for all injured workers to get hearings these days,
not just 9/11 workers. The number of workers’ compensation
hearings in New York State has decreased from 407,983 in 2001,
to 305,722 in 2005, according to the board’s annual reports.
Board spokesperson Jon Sullivan acknowledged that the board
tries to reduce its number of hearings, but said that’s only
because it wants to be efficient. “It doesn’t make sense to have
a hearing if there’s nothing that moves the case forward,” he
Once hearings are scheduled, many 9/11 workers say they
aren’t told what exactly they need to do to prepare, resulting
in further delays in the case. Some say they don’t want to pay
for a lawyer to help, citing New York’s already small maximum
weekly compensation of $400 — a rate that hasn’t seen an
increase since 1992.
Linda Carillo, who is 35 and lives in Far Rockaway, was a
construction worker for 18 years before 9/11. Present as a
volunteer in its immediate aftermath, she worked on a human
assembly line that removed rubble from ground zero. She said she
now suffers from serious respiratory problems and post-traumatic
stress disorder. To date, her workers’ compensation case has
been open for four years. She said she’s unable to work and has
been forced into foreclosure on her house.
After waiting months for her first hearing she went to court,
but her claim was denied because the board said she needed a
letter showing she had respiratory problems. She’d had no idea
she needed the letter, and it took her another year to reopen
The Worker’s Compensation Board says 94 percent of its 9/11
related cases are “resolved.” The board does not say how many
cases have been accepted or rejected, however, and worker case
files are sealed.
Workers’ compensation lawyers say the term “resolved” is
The board is able to say a large percentage of cases are
resolved because it routinely sends letters to claimants telling
them their case needs “no further action.” According to Vic
Fusco, of Fusco, Brandenstein and Rada in Manhattan, who
represents a number of 9/11 workers, this puts the burden on the
worker to file a new claim.
“All the issues that board can resolve are resolved,” said
Sullivan, explaining the board’s process. “But we understand a
resolved case today may need to be reworked tomorrow, because
new issues come about.” He added that the length of time it
takes to resolve a case can vary greatly, with complex 9/11
health cases often taking longer.
After Carillo refiled her claim with a chart from Manhattan’s
Mount Sinai Medical Center showing a significantly decreased
lung function, she faced an even more vexing problem. She was
again denied, this time because there was no “causal
relationship of the medical condition,” according to the letter
sent to Carillo by the board.
It’s a problem for many 9/11 workers. Often, 9/11-related
injuries are more difficult to prove than other workers’
compensation cases. Out of 756 volunteers that have submitted
claims, 61 are currently receiving benefits, Sullivan said.
According to a recently released Mount Sinai study, 69
percent of 9/11 workers studied have developed new or worsened
respiratory problems in the past five years. But the board
doesn’t grant workers’ compensation for many of these types of
claims. In 2005, it granted compensation for over 90,000
physical injuries, particularly to the back and legs, according
to its annual report. In addition, it granted compensation for
5,000 occupational injuries caused by long-term physical stress,
but half of those were chronic wrist injuries. Environmental or
respiratory type injuries, however, were not listed.
“9/11-related illnesses are considered illness and not
injury,” said Dr. Jacqueline Moline, director of the World Trade
Center Medical Monitoring Center, which treats Picurro and
Carillo. “If a man falls and twists his ankle, he would be
compensated because they know the time and the date it happens.”
The only way to prove 9/11 cases is to find qualified doctors
willing to testify on a worker’s behalf. The board requires
doctors to have a “reasonable degree of medical certainty” that
9/11 caused a worker’s injury.
However, many workers go to respiratory specialists who can
diagnose their illness, but cannot point to its cause. One
reason is that until August 2006, the city Department of Health
did not release any guidelines for diagnosing 9/11-related
illnesses, leaving many doctors unaware of their symptoms.
Joe Picurro, 39, a native of Toms River, N.J., was an
ironworker during the 9/11 cleanup, removing twisted metal in an
effort to find bodies buried in the rubble. Now he’s been
diagnosed with a number of serious respiratory diseases and
leukemia, which has an uncertain link to W.T.C. dust and may
take many years to establish. When he was initially hospitalized
in the Toms River Community Medical Center, doctors told him he
had the flu as he vomited up small pieces of his esophagus,
according to his wife Laura Picurro.
His doctors were incredulous when she told them she believed
9/11 dust had caused her husband’s illness. “They said they had
never heard of such a thing,” she said. They gave him an
antibiotic. Only after a number of costly visits to different
doctors did they finally learn he had scarring and particles of
pulverized glass in his lungs. Picurro was unemployed at the
time he volunteered. Because he lacked health insurance, the
rounds of visits and hospital stays put the couple heavily in
Often, doctors unfamiliar with 9/11 illnesses will attribute
workers’ respiratory problems to a preexisting condition.
Claimants who are smokers, like Picurro, particularly face this
problem, although that would not have explained the pulverized
glass in his lungs.
“Not many doctors are aware of the nuances because they don’t
see the sheer numbers of people,” said Moline, who said she
herself has been able to testify persuasively in a number of
workers’ compensation cases because of her broad experience.
Albany tried recently to address some concerns about the
board. In August, former Gov. George Pataki extended the
deadline to apply for 9/11 related worker’s compensation, which
had passed in 2003, until August 2007. The bill also included
several measures intended to speed up the workers’ compensation
process and to provide speedier access to medical care if a
claim is being challenged.
Still, many frustrated workers and volunteers are now looking
beyond the workers’ comp process to get the money they feel they
There are 8,000 people who have filed a lawsuit claiming
negligence by the Environmental Protection Agency and the New
York Port Authority, among others, for alleged misleading
statements about the air quality at ground zero. The fate of the
suit is still unclear.
There is also the possibility of reopening the “9/11 Victim
Compensation Fund,” which Congress originally created just weeks
The original fund provided more than $38 billion to 9/11
victims and their families, and was paid for largely by the
federal government. But the fund’s Special Master Kenneth
Feinberg, who awarded money to workers who developed symptoms
early on, decided that Congress had not intended the fund to
compensate workers with injuries that would develop over a
longer period of time, because there was no way of knowing the
amount each claimant’s illness would eventually cost.
But now, some New York and New Jersey lawmakers, including
Senator Hillary Clinton, want the fund reopened for those very
workers. In September, they introduced a bill to allow workers
to apply to the fund whose symptoms became apparent after the
initial December 2003 deadline.
The original fund was unusual in several ways. There was no
limit on how much could be spent, and compensation was decided
outside the normal legislative or legal processes.
Francis McGovern, a professor at Duke Law School and an
alternative dispute resolution expert, thinks that Congress as a
whole won’t want to reopen the fund. “If you do this once, you
could say it’s 100 percent unique,” he said. “But if you do it
twice, you’re saying anything else like this gets federal
funding to pay for it. I think the inclination of Congress,
except Hillary Clinton, would be to let the tort system take
care of these folks.” McGovern said a system similar to the
asbestos trust recently proposed in Congress, which would have
more financial constraints, would be more feasible.
Clinton and her New York colleagues in the House and Senate
want $1.9 billion in new spending for continued 9/11-related
medical monitoring, treatment and research for workers and
residents affected by the attack.
Waiting on Congress and the courts, many workers have given
up on their cases, preferring instead to rest and focus on their
health problems, according to case workers and advocates.
Diana Salvador, a psychologist and former director of the
9/11 Family Wellness program, believes the stresses created by
trying to go through the process only makes workers’ health
worse. “There’s a sense of powerlessness,” she said. “Between
the trauma and talking to the board and getting health
insurance, it can become more than a full-time job.”
Carillo, with the bills mounting and having lost her house,
said she’s starting to consider giving up her fight for
compensation. “I’m tired,” she said. “I’m tired of telling my
story over and over and nothing happening