Niagara lawmaker urges action by governor to sign Grisanti bill
by Christian W. Peck
Public Information Officer
Niagara County Public Information Office
When Niagara County lawmakers meet Tuesday, they will receive copies of a letter Legislator Michael A. Hill, R-Middleport, sent to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo late last week urging him to sign a bill to protect volunteer firefighters from being fired because of commitments to their communities.
If Cuomo fails to sign the bill into law by midnight Wednesday, it will die, despite widespread bipartisan support in the Senate and Assembly - as well as urgent lobbying by FASNY, the Firefighters Association of the State of New York.
Hill's letter to Cuomo, drafted with the encouragement and input of several Majority Caucus colleagues, calls on the governor to sign the proposed law, which was drafted by Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, and passed both houses of the State Legislature by wide margins. The Grisanti firefighter leave bill was drafted amid concern volunteer firefighters and EMTs faced employment discrimination during long-term call-ups to respond to local emergencies and disasters.
Hill released a copy of his letter to Cuomo to the media earlier today.
Prompting the push for the firefighter leave of absence bill is the fact that, under existing law, employers may force a volunteer firefighter or EMT they employ to use vacation or sick time, require them to forfeit pay, and even terminate them for failing to report to work during a call-up. The Grisanti bill seeks to protect employers' interests by requiring firefights to present proof of their call-up while forbidding punitive measures by employers under such circumstances.
"No one out protecting his or her neighbors should have to worry about losing a job because they did the right thing, and took on the burdens of citizenship," Hill wrote Cuomo. "When a disaster strikes, it is these volunteers to whom our communities turn."
Hill, a former volunteer firefighter himself, noted many smaller municipalities and rural communities are forced to rely on volunteer firefighters and paramedics because of what he termed the "prohibitive costs" of maintaining large paid professional firefighting and police forces.
Hill also noted federal law requires employers to honor the commitments of citizen soldiers in the National Guard and Reserve, and that in emergency situations it's not uncommon to see volunteer firefighters and EMTs serving alongside National Guard personnel to mount a response.
"(It) is illegal for employers to require members of the military's Reserve Component to use vacation or sick time while on an Active Duty deployment," Hill wrote Cuomo. "As a county legislator, but more importantly, as a former volunteer firefighter myself, I am asking you to extend similar protections to volunteer firefighters and EMTs, who are called up for short-term activations."
Hill noted business advocates in Albany had been urging Cuomo to disregard to veto the Grisanti bill because of the potential costs to business. The Middleport lawmaker, who has long been a strong advocate for business and the private sector, said those lobbying efforts didn't square with his conversations with many business owners in his district.
"I know many of the small business owners I interact with daily support this bill because they understand that volunteer fire companies help keep their local taxes down - and that supporting volunteer firefighters and EMTs who have been called up in an emergency or disaster is, quite simply, the right thing to do," Hill wrote.
While Hill's letter to Cuomo was cordial, he noted that he and several of his colleagues were watching the governor closely on this issue - particularly in light of the time restraints impacting the bill.
"The Majority Caucus members I've spoken to are all in favor of this law, but we declined to place a resolution urging action by the governor on Tuesday's agenda because we were concerned that, even if we passed it Tuesday night, our correspondence couldn't reach Albany in time," Hill explained. "I've found the governor to be open to listening to us on issues of this nature in the past, and I'm hoping he'll do the right thing and sign Sen. Grisanti's bill into law."
The bill, S.1604, was sent to Cuomo by state lawmakers Dec. 6.
According to a release from FASNY President James Burns that urged Cuomo to sign the bill, "in the past two years, 600 of the state's 1,800 volunteer departments were deployed to other parts of the state for disaster mutual aid. More than 80 percent of New York state is covered by volunteer first responders, and FASNY said the threat of job loss may keep some volunteers from responding."