Some reflections after chairing the Senate Committee on Civil Service & Pensions

When I first joined the New York State Senate, I was tasked with the great responsibility to chair the Committee on Civil Service & Pensions. As someone who came from a family of public servants, and with a background and appreciation for public pensions, I relished the opportunity to lead this committee and try to do good work on behalf of New York State’s robust public sector. Over the course of three years, the committee was able to advance a great many pieces of legislation and serve as a platform to support our public workers.

This year, I assumed a new responsibility: chairing the Committee on Budget & Revenue. This opportunity, while exciting, means I had to relinquish the chairmanship of Civil Service & Pensions, though I continue to serve on that committee. As I make this transition, I wanted to share just a few thoughts about how the past three years have gone.

During my three year tenure as chairman of Civil Service & Pensions, our committee held 18 meetings and reported out more than 150 bills, including many of my own. Here are just some examples of the ways in which our work together has made a difference:

  • Increased the cost of living allowance for pension benefits paid to widowers of deceased public retirees who died in the line of duty
  • Made it easier for firefighters who developed Parkinson’s Disease to prove that the disease was job-related, enhancing their disability or death pension benefits
  • 9/11 Heroes package of 2019:
  • Ensured that retired NYC firefighters who were diagnosed with cancer within five years of retirement could access Accidental Disability Retirement pensions
  • Expanded the number of specialized physicians on the NYCERS Medical Board, making it easier for disabled 9/11 first responders to secure benefits
  • Granted unlimited sick leave to NYC municipal workers exposed to toxins at the WTC pile
  • Revived and improved the 9/11 Workers Protection Task Force
  • Closed a loophole in the WTC Presumption Law which denied first responders benefits if they participated in rescue, recovery, or cleanup operations at the pile but had not joined a pension system at the time of their participation
  • Created a COVID-19 pension death benefit for public employees reporting to work on or after March 1st, 2020 who caught COVID
  • Required public employers to create and publish a pandemic workplace safety plan
  • Required all employers (public and private) to grant four hours of paid leave to get the COVID-19 vaccine, including boosters

We also held our first ever legislative hearing on the topic of how to build a “public service pipeline” in which graduating students are trained for and directly recruited into public sector jobs. Members of the committee heard from a range of witnesses including Civil Service Commissioner Lola Brabham, representatives from municipal civil service agencies, public sector labor unions, and young students themselves on how to recruit and retain the next generation of public employees.

One of the most favorite parts of being Chair of the committee was conducting statewide civil service tours: an opportunity to visit and meet with public servants at their workplaces across the state. In 2019, I learned what it’s like to work the night shift as a New York City firefighter, teach fourth grade at a magnet public school in Syracuse, and ensure the safety of Suffolk County’s courthouses alongside its uniformed court officers and clerks. In 2021, I visited 911 operators in Suffolk County, met with NYC Parole Officers, and visited nurse patients at Helen Hayes, one of the first freestanding public sector rehabilitation hospitals in the country. I toured Kaaterskill Falls with the New York State Park Rangers and I heard from many essential workers who were forced to report to work during the most hazardous months of the pandemic, such as municipal postal workers disseminating information or Office of Mental Health nurses in a psychiatric ward.

The stories I heard during my tours cemented what I have always known as chairman of this committee: despite chronic underinvestment in our public sector workforce, state and local employees have risen to the occasion time and time again, and we must do all that we can as policymakers to support them.

Through my work on this Committee, I have learned firsthand how austerity budgets and historic disinvestment have decimated our states ability to properly staff the agencies who are fixing our roads, keeping our parks clean, teaching our children and keeping our cities and towns safe and running. Investing in our public workforce matters. 10 years of austerity budgets have real, tangible consequences, and we have to reinvest back into the public sector if we are going to be able to provide the breadth and depth of public services that the general public expects from their government.

Engaged and committed public servants are key to our state’s economic recovery: they invest their whole working lives in helping our state reach its true potential. But in order for them to invest in us, we must invest in them first.

Although my time as Chair of Civil Service & Pensions has come to an end, my commitment to civil service has not. As the new Chairman of Budget and Revenue, I will now play a larger role in overseeing state finances and will carry the lessons learned from Civil Service & Pensions with me — and I will continue to fight for public workers wherever I go.

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