Breasts and Balls
Emil Albano, a city firefighter for 30 years, retired in 1999 after he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. His application for an accident disability pensionwhich would entitle him to three-quarters of his salary tax free for lifehas become the focus of an obscure but revealing battle between the Bloomberg administration and the business-as-usual state legislature and city council.
Bloomberg's Albany lobbyist, Anthony Piscitelli, submitted a memo to the legislature opposing a pending bill that would aid Albano. It was introduced in February by two Democrats in the assembly, Peter Abbate and Brian McLaughlin, as well as all six senate Republicans from the city. With such a powerful alignment of political rabbis, the bill, which originated with the Uniformed Firefighters Association, appears destined to become law. On April 30, it received the blessing of what's called a home rule messagemeaning Speaker Gifford Miller and the council rubber-stamped it.
The bill purports, as Abbate put it in a Voice interview, "to level the playing field for female firefighters." It adds new cancers, especially breast cancer, to the list of old ones spelled out in legislation, first passed in 1994, that offers full disability pensions to any afflicted firefighter. The existing laws explicitly state that when a firefighter gets "any condition of cancer affecting the lymphatic, digestive, hematological, urinary or prostate systems," it is "presumptive evidence" that the illness "was incurred in the performance and discharge of duty."
Abbate says the union convinced him that what was good for the gander was good for the gooseand that, if prostate cancer was covered, so, too, should breast cancer be. Chris Policano, a spokesman for the council, echoed this UFA shibboleth. What nobody noticed was that the bill also extended the bonanza benefits to "reproductive cancer," which includes "uterine, ovarian and testicular." That's where Emil Albano comes in.
The Piscitelli memo charges that the Abbate bill "is really intended to be a one-person bill for the benefit of Emil Albano," who did manage to retire on an ordinary disability pension paying one-third of his salary. "Any doubt that the purpose of the bill is to benefit Mr. Albano is removed by the fact that Mr. Albano retired on September 24, 1999," wrote Piscitelli, "and the bill is retroactive to June 30, 1999." Piscitelli blasted the bill as "an unconstitutional gift of public funds" and lectured: "Legislation tailored to fit the needs of one individual should not be the process by which public policy in this state is established."
While Piscitelli doesn't note it, the other coincidence is that Abbate introduced the bill on February 5, as soon as he could after Albano took an October 2002 7-to-0 drubbing in the state's highest court. (The assembly isn't in session until January.) With the support of the union, Albano had unsuccessfully tried to convince the Medical Board of the New York City Fire Pension Fund, the Board of Trustees, and two lower courts, of the justice of his claim that his testicles were "part of the urinary system."
In fact, even before Albano's final court loss, the UFA had already turned to Albany. According to Abbate, the UFA pushed him to back a bill last year that extended the disability benefits to breast and reproductive cancers, and he introduced it on May 24, 2002. "They brought the bill up and explained it to my staff," said Abbate. "But even though the UFA wrote the bill, they drafted it in such a way as they accidentally excluded New York City. The 2002 bill passed, so it's in effect for firefighters statewide except the city." Abbate's new bill, by his own description, is an attempt to correct last year's error.
Until contacted by the Voice, Abbate had never seen Piscitelli's memo, nor did he know Emil Albano. "Albano's called my office about the bill. He's one of three or four people who have," said Abbate, who could not explain the 1999 effective date of the legislation and sounded shocked by the union's secret agenda. "My sense is Albano must have given them a hard time," Abbate concluded, explaining why they'd pushed so vigorously for the bill.
But Abbate still differed sharply with Bloomberg, whose Piscitelli memo curiously conceded that the city "would not object to an amendment to remedy discrimination against female firefighters by prospectively adding breast cancer to the list of covered cancers." If the city "will accept" breasts, why not balls, was Abbate's baffled yet reasonable argument. A Bloomberg spokesman had no ready answer for that one.
Of course, Abbate's question goes to the heart of each of the ridiculous exceptions appended to this bill over time. Abbate can offer no scientific evidence that firefighters are more likely to get reproductive or breast cancer than the general population. Nor can he prove that the incidence of these cancers, or neurological cancer (which the bill also includes), is in any way job-related.
Indeed, why should every firefighter with a home on Breezy Point or the Rockaways be seen by the retirement system as working on his disability pension every time he hits the beach and exposes himself to possible melanoma? Or why should all that testosterone firehouse cooking be allowed to lead to fully pensionable digestive cancers? Prostate cancer is now being used to justify adding breast cancer to this expensive list, but where was the academic research to support putting prostate cancer on it in the first place?
It's certainly plausible that firefighters expose themselves to carcinogenic chemicals and get cancer because of it. The union frequently invokes a decade-old study by Mount Sinai Hospital, though it was not peer-reviewed and does not apply at all to many of the cancers that are now or have been shoehorned into the legislation. All the Piscitelli memo says is, "the city believes that the occupational incidence of uterine, ovarian and testicular cancer among firefighters should be subject to a scientific study to determine whether there is a nexus between those cancers and firefighting." Until a study is completed, the city wants the bill deferred. But with everyone else in power lining up to gratify the UFA, how likely is that?
Miller and the council have been breathing down Bloomberg's back on behalf of the fire union for months, opposing the mayor's attempt to reduce manning in some engine companies from five to four firefighters and railing against the attempt to close six firehouses. Even as thousands of city workers were laid off, all the council appeared to care about, at least based on its press clips, were firehouse closings that resulted in no layoffs.
The public heat on Bloomberg was so intense that he wilted last week, just before he had to appear at a mass FDNY promotional ceremony. Though the mayor has won every court case so far on the manning and closings, he worked out a new deal with the union, cutting the number of firefighters in less than half of the engine companies he'd originally proposed.
UFA president Stephen Cassidy, who told a Times profiler three weeks ago that Bloomberg's "cruelest knock to firefighters and the communities they bond with" was the closings, quickly agreed to abandon his firehouse lawsuits as soon as the mayor moved on manning.
The Albano billas Piscitelli's memo labels itis an indication that, as martyred as New York City's bravest are, their union is still susceptible to overreaching. Having already obtained a bill to give bonus points on hiring and promotional exams for the children of the 9-11 dead, the union wants the same for siblings. In a NY1 interview a few weeks ago, Dominick Carter asked Cassidy if he preferred concessions or layoffs and, with DC 37's Lillian Roberts sitting next to him, Cassidy said with a smile: layoffs. Roberts was taking up to 3,000 layoffs at her union and Cassidy knew he would take none.
In fact the most draconian Bloomberg budget this year added firefighters because overtime is through the ceiling. As is firefighter sick leave. As are retirements, especially with all that post-9-11 overtime inflating pensions. It's not that the firefighters of 9-11 are any less our heroes; it's just that their still-on-the-job brothers are very complicated heroes.
Research assistance: Zoe Alsop, Michael Anstending, Naomi Lindt, and Brittany Schaeffer
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.