unlikely headquarters: the WCB in Menands.
David King • PHOTOGRAPHS
BY TERI CURRIE
unseen effects of the Sept. 11 attacks on one hidebound state
When people think about the heroes of the World Trade Center
disaster, they think of the rescue workers, the victims who
organized escape routes, the firemen, the police officers
and the generous passersby who stepped up to volunteer. All
these brave people are memorialized in the permanent World
Trade Center exhibit in the New York State Museum in downtown
a building just a few blocks away from the museum, at 20 Park
St., and in another a few exits down Route 787 at 100 Broadway
in Menands, there are people whose post-Sept. 11 work has
been quieter and less recognized, working one-step-removed
to help those heroes who were on the scene. The workers at
20 Park St. and 100 Broadway are a group of unlikely benefactors;
they are the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board.
In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, the WCB belied the usual stigma
of red-tape bureaucracy and lazy workers that is often attached
to state agencies, turning their own rules and established
practices upside-down to help both injured workers and volunteers.
And unbeknownst to most of the public (any Workers’ Comp employee
can tell you the stigma is still intact), many of the changes
have been made permanent. The 9/11 disaster tested the New
York State Workers’ Compensation Board, and a new, more sensitive
agency has emerged.
The WCB was originally forged from what some consider the
second greatest workplace disaster in New York’s history.
On March 25, 1911, eight blocks south of Union Square in Manhattan,
the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire. Since the building’s
doors had all been locked to keep the women workers inside
from escaping, 146 workers died from the fire, many jumping
in desperation from the windows. Most of them were Jewish
and Italian teenage girls. The public backlash from the fire
led to an outcry from the working class for government responsibility.
Along with inspiring the passage of dozens of workplace safety
regulations, the fire (and the pitiful compensation the families
received) also led to the passing of the Worker’s Compensation
Law of 1914. That law gave birth to the WCB.
New York law now stipulates that almost every employer has
to carry workers’ compensation insurance policies that are
approved by the state. If people are injured in the course
of employment or acquire an occupation-related illness, they
notify their employer, who files a claim with its insurance
carrier. The WCB is also alerted. The board’s roles include
identifying the proper carrier, making sure the insurance
companies follow through, and adjudicating disputed claims.
If an employer is not insured, the board pays the claimant
directly, levies penalties against the negligent employer,
and attempts to get reimbursement from the employer.
It’s a complicated process, and the WCB has long been notorious
among workers and workers’ advocates for being difficult to
work with and full of red tape, frequently demanding standards
of proof that are out of reach for many injured workers.
That was certainly the experience of Walter Clickman, a 56-year-old
Greenville farmer who worked full time at night for a grocery
store, stripping and waxing the floors. After 12 years working
with the abrasive chemicals, Clickman found it extremely difficult
to breathe and was frequently coming down with pneumonia.
Everything became harder to do because he was out of breath
all the time. He was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary
Walter filed a claim for workers’ compensation, but his employer
insisted that there was no proof his disease was caused by
the chemicals he used for so many years to clean their floors.
The WCB agreed, and Walter was left trying to hold down a
job without being able to take a full breath.
John, a 45-year-old Schenectady resident, had been driving
for a local courier company for only two months when he was
involved in a serious accident. After a long recovery, John
was unable to hold a job due to uncontrollable seizures. John
assumed because of the severity of his accident and the medical
problems that followed that he would be eligible for workers’
compensation. Instead he found that due to the length and
type of his employment, he was not eligible.
the past, injured employees such as John have often found
themselves out of luck with Workers’ Comp for a number of
reasons, including being considered contractors rather than
employees or doing what is termed “casual work,” such as handyman-type
jobs or babysitting. Most of the time, however, claims are
denied based on employers’ disputing workers’ accounts. If
evidence that a worker’s injury or illness arose from the
workplace can be disputed, the worker is generally left to
fend for themselves.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001. In the hours immediately following
the attacks it was hard for anyone to imagine the effect that
those events would have on their daily lives over the next
months and years. From the pizza boy to the Wall Street financial
big-shots, everyone was uncertain of the future—but not Mark
Solomon, the senior Workers’ Compensation Board judge for
the New York District. Solomon, who had a view of the towers
as they fell, knew instantly that there were workers in the
building and that he would be part of the process to get them
compensation. “I heard the hit on the way to work and knew
we were going to have it,” he commented recently.
was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, office places
in New York City. We were all in shock,” says Edwin J. Ruff,
the advocate for injured workers at the board. Ruff and the
rest of the WCB heads were in a boardroom that same day trying
to anticipate the size of the disaster and how they would
deal with it. “We had an office on the pier open the next
day,” says John Sullivan, the media-relations representative
for the WCB. “I was at work the next day with my staff [and
we kept at it] for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for
12 months,” Ruff remembers.
Training was set up for judges to start dealing with the new
claims. The WCB normally receives 400-500 claims for death
per year; in the wake of the World Trade Center disaster they
received 2,500. “We didn’t know the police and rescue workers
had done such a good job,” says Sullivan. “We were initially
wondering if we would have 10,000 deaths.”
Under such extraordinary circumstances it quickly became clear
that some usual ways of doing things were going to have to
give. “The chairman made it immediately clear to us that we
needed to make the process easier on everyone,” says Ruff.
So they did. The first step was to do away with requiring
proof of death and a death certificate. An affidavit system
was introduced that rested on the word of family members that
they had lost a loved one. The affidavit system is still in
effect today for all death claims, not just those involving
change may seem like a small concession, but it made a world
of difference to those who found themselves without any proof
that their family member was dead. For many who lost family
in the attacks, there was no body, and therefore no way to
get a death certificate. It also allowed WCB workers to extend
a hand of trust to the people they were trying to help. Rather
than coming off as robotic, insensitive data collectors, WCB
staff were able to acknowledge how much the people they were
dealing with had gone through. Staff who had before felt like
they were part of an uncaring, inflexible bureaucracy were
now in a position that felt just a little more human. As one
worker put it, “It was easier to do our jobs because we made
it easier on them.”
It also had been WCB policy to require a hearing for every
death case. That rule was quickly revoked in the wake of 9/11.
They also got Gov. Pataki to issue an executive order doing
away with the requirement for injured workers to notify their
employers within 30 days of an injury. “In a lot of cases
the employers no longer existed,” Sullivan points out.
One of the most important moves the board made next was to
approach insurance companies to let them know they were expected
to pay the Trade Center claims very quickly. “We told insurance
companies to start paying and we would worry about the problems
later,” Ruff explained. According to Ruff, the companies responded
favorably and a good many of them used the “payment without
prejudice” option that allowed them to start paying victims
immediately without accepting liability. The WCB also took
steps to encourage any lawyer who was involved in a WTC claim
to work pro bono.
Another move the board took was to begin educating union reps
on how to walk their workers through the claims process. “We
wanted to make sure people know what to do from the moment
of injury to the date of a hearing,” said Ruff. The board
immediately set up meetings with unions to find out their
They also reached out to undocumented immigrants. (The WCB
works with people regardless of immigration status.) The Windows
on the World restaurant at the top of Tower 1 employed many
non-English-speaking and undocumented people. “We got a list
of people and made sure we had people to communicate with
them,” said Ruff. WCB employees from around the state volunteered
to work as translators.
All of these changes would have made little to no dent in
the speed or amount of claims being processed by the board
if the WCB had not begun modernizing and updating its communications
systems in 1997 to allow cases to be handled and information
to be accessed all around the state, with files accessible
in minutes rather than hours. Cases were handled from New
York City to Menands to Buffalo, with every office pitching
make this happen: a WCB employee prepares for a
who had dealings with the WCB before 1997 (when everything
was stored in paper files) will tell you the experience was
agonizing and slow. A great number of agencies around the
country have yet to update their systems. If New York’s board
had been one of them, the results could have been disastrous.
“We have resolved 90 percent of the death claims at this time,”
says Sullivan. “If we were working on our old, out-of-date
system, we would still be working on the first third of the
Some victims of the WTC attack needed help from WCB right
away. However, money was the last thing on other victims’
minds. In anticipation of the two-year deadline for filing
claims, the board launched an outreach campaign to make sure
anyone eligible to file a claim did so. The outreach paid
off, and there was a flood of claims, which the WCB has just
about finished processing.
had 10,000 unexpected claims with a national spotlight on
us and a huge emotional factor that affected our employees
and those we were trying to help,” Sullivan emphasizes. “Everyone
in our offices all around the state was anxious to do what
they could to help.” The WCB had a sharp increase in cases
that were settled without hearings, which reduced the stress
on workers and claimants.
The changes affected the board workers’ experience of their
jobs as well. While WCB workers are accustomed to dealing
with people who have recently been through devastating events,
the torrent of claims that followed 9/11 were more than the
norm. Just as everyone around the country did, they felt a
sense of urgency and commitment to somehow help the victims
of 9/11. By becoming more flexible, rather than forcing people
through the grinder of bureaucracy, WCB workers were able
to see themselves as legitimate assistants to those who really
needed help. Workers say their jobs at the WCB and the changes
made there allowed them to feel a unique sense of satisfaction.
While friends and relatives wanted to know what they could
to do make a difference for the victims of 9/11, members of
the board were immediately able to help, albeit in a small
Despite how out-of-the- ordinary the Sept. 11 workers’ compensation
claims were, the system could be adjusted and played with
to accommodate the number and type of the claims. But people
who worked in the towers or for the fire and police departments
weren’t the only ones injured in the attacks. There were also
all the volunteers.
The volunteers were not injured “in the course of or arising
from their employment.” In fact, some were not employed at
all. There was no employer backing them up with insurance
benefits. No one had been paying for their safety.
Although the WCB had never dealt with volunteers before, many
of the claims workers became quite familiar with the stories
of the volunteers’ heroics from their interaction with the
victims, and the board felt obligated to try to assist the
heroic volunteers who weren’t technically employed by anyone.
So the WCB applied for a grant from the Federal Department
of Labor, received $25 million to use toward compensating
the volunteers, and established a set of guidelines to make
sure an applicant was truly a volunteer. The guidelines stipulated
that a volunteer had to have been directed by an agency such
as the Red Cross or other service and have been working within
a radius around the WTC site or the Staten Island landfill.
“We have been quite liberal with our required proof,” says
Sullivan. “We’d rather be on the side of giving benefits.”
They were determined to alert anyone who deserved the benefits
to their eligibility. The WCB sent out packets to every known
volunteer and made calls to let them know what kind of proof
they would need. Out of the $25-million grant, $1 million
has been spent to date. There are 588 registered volunteers.
Eighty-seven volunteer claimants have been paid, but the vast
majority have not pursued benefits. “Very few claimants are
pursuing wage replacement,” says Ruff. “They are more concerned
with the long-term effects on their health.” Those who have
registered have done so in anticipation of WTC-related illness.
With this grant, the WCB and all of its employees find themselves
in a position they’ve never been in before. Rather than being
able to determine whether an insurance company should pay
workers, they are now in charge of grant money that will be
used to take care of WTC volunteers for years to come. In
this matter, the board cannot push someone else to pay; the
part they play in the WTC volunteer matter is that of screener.
It’s up to the board now to decide the severity of the injury
and eligibility for compensation. They must consider that
the money they are giving out for volunteers is coming from
a limited fund that may need to stretch through what appears
to be almost certain impending long-term illnesses. Board
workers may eventually find themselves having to determine
which volunteer is in a more deserving or desperate situation.
Workers at the board are well aware of this fact and it is
a weight that rests on their shoulders. Never before have
the workers of the WCB been so directly responsible for the
people they are helping and it is not something they can forget.
Captain Scott Shields is one of those volunteers. On the morning
of the 11th, he and his rescue dog, Bear, traveled from Connecticut
to help out at the scene of the disaster. Bear was the first
dog inside the rubble. He played an integral part in the rescue
efforts and is credited with finding the most victims, including
FDNY Chief Peter Ganci and FDNY Commissioner Thomas Feehan.
Like many other volunteers, Shields and Bear were injured
during their more than 18 hours in the rubble. Shield’s legs
were damaged severely, but he was alive. “I had two fractured
ankles and a knee. I can’t walk anymore,” says Shields.
But what really concerns him is the fate of his rescue dog,
Bear, whose injuries from the WTC site rapidly became cancerous.
Within a year Bear was dead. “Animals react quicker to stuff
like that than we do,” says Shields. “It’s like canaries in
the mine. The building was cooled by freon; there were tons
of burning plastics. It’s like Agent Orange.” The effect of
the toxins released on the day of the disaster is a strong
concern for all those who survived that day at ground zero.
So far the availability of the WCB fund has only proved a
partial comfort to volunteers who are worried about impending
long-term health effects. “The people at the WCB have done
all they can. Some of them in particular have been real angels,
but most people are not worried about the rescuers, and we
are all sick,” claims Shields. “Rescue workers will willingly
give their lives for anyone on any day and their backs aren’t
Shields points to what he calls the Environmental Protection
Agency’s deliberate distortion in reporting the level of carcinogens
in the air in the city and around ground zero. “The city is
100 times over the limit of carcinogens and the EPA is lying
through their teeth,” Shields asserts. “They are more concerned
about real estate than people’s health.” He also feels that
more money is being spent on researching the effects of the
air at ground zero than actually helping victims and providing
health care. He points to the $93 million that has been granted
to Mount Sinai, a major teaching and research hospital in
Manhattan, and wonders why more is not being given for day-to-day
health care for the victims.
However, the studies done at Mount Sinai have actually confirmed
Shields and other volunteers’ fears. A study that included
1,138 responders revealed that nearly three-quarters of them
experienced new or worsened upper respiratory problems, and
half of them had upper and lower respiratory symptoms eight
months after the World Trade Center attack. They were all
also found to have suffered extreme psychological effects.
Sullivan says the board feels that its $24 million in unspent
volunteer grant dollars are insurance for the future, when
more volunteer health issues may arise. The two-year deadline
for filing after an accident has been waived for volunteers.
“We will be ready for them,” says Sullivan. “We worked with
Mount Sinai clinics. A lot of money is going to screening,
and it’s going to continue because there is more cost there.”
But the weight of actually paying for treatment down the road
may rest on the WCB’s shoulders.
After pushing so hard to smooth the way for payments to workers
and volunteers, is the board seeing any need to put the red
tape back in place? There were a few high-profile cases of
people making fraudulent applications to the Sept. 11 Fund
and other charities in the months after the attacks, but Sullivan
says they’ve had no indication of people taking advantage
of their newfound generosity. “We did push the insurance companies
to pay and it’s our responsibility to make sure the integrity
is pure, but I don’t believe there was anything close to an
epidemic of fraud,” he states confidently.
The WCB is still a bureaucracy. That will never change. But
the events of 9/11 have forced the board to look at the way
it deals with people. There is a dark cloud on the horizon
for the WCB as they will be responsible for the 9/11 volunteers
whose health is already wavering. Good or bad, the spotlight
will be shining bright on them to see how they take care of
the heroes of our nation’s most devastating terrorist attack.
was at work the next day with my staff [and we kept at it]
for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for 12 months,” Ruff
few claimants are pursuing wage replacement,” says Ruff. “They
are more concerned with the long-term effects on their health.”
Those who have registered have done so in anticipation of