Some Latino Ground Zero workers from Queens alleged that the major law firm representing 10,000 workers in the lawsuit against the city over their exposure to World Trade Center dust is leaving them out of the $713 million settlement.
At their weekly Thursday meeting in the Jackson Heights office of the non-profit organization the Latin American Workers Project, Inc. (LAWP), Ground Zero clean-up workers complained that many of them were told by the law firm of Napoli Bern Ripka, LLP that they did not qualify to get any compensation from the settlement against the city. The settlement, worth as much as $713 million, required that 95 percent of the plaintiffs sign on by November 8.
“After risking our lives, they are going to close the door on us?” said Colombian native Jaime Munevar, 54, who claimed he worked at Ground Zero for a company that was hired to clean-up after the September 11 attacks.
Munevar, who lives in East Elmhurst, said the masks he was provided with would get wet with sweat and made it difficult for him to work, so instead he decided not to use one at all. A decision, he said, he regrets because he now suffers from chronic asthma, which makes it hard for him to breathe, and on top of that he constantly gets panic attacks.
“My sicknesses are certified by a physician,” Munevar said.
But Munevar, along with more than 20 cleaners in the meeting, stood up to indicate they were told by the law firm that they didn’t meet the qualifications for recovery under the settlement. Seven others stood up to show they had accepted the settlement and eight others stood up to admit they never filed to be part of the collective lawsuit against the city by the cut-off date of April 12. Still, the workers who were denied recovery want a detail explanation as to why they were left out of the settlement.
“I can’t answer a question that is completely in the dark,” said a representative of Napoli Bern Ripka, LLP, which according to the voluntary agreement would receive no more than 25 percent in fees from an individual plaintiff’s recovery, and charge for case-specific expenses and general expenses.
For the Latino clean-up workers who were already denied recovery under the settlement, they are hoping that they would qualify for health benefits and compensation payments under the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, if it passes the U.S. Senate like it did in the U.S. House of Representatives on September 2. As of now, its prospects of passing are uncertain.
“We have to claim everything that is ours,” said Yonel Letellier Sosa, a representative from State Senator Jose Peralta’s office.
That’s why more than 50 Ground Zero clean-up workers from Queens, many who are undocumented, soon plan to take their fight to Washington, D.C. to tell their stories and request to be included in the bill.
“If this law passes, and it says that it doesn’t accept undocumented, and then you all will get left out,” Oscar Paredes, director of LAWP, reminded workers during the meeting.
Munevar said their fight isn’t about money; it is about fairness and respect. All he wants is recognition from the government for putting their lives in danger to help the city and the country recover. He said the ultimate reward would be to give undocumented workers citizenship status.
“It is not fair that we go through this double injustice,” said Munevar, who was on the brink of crying when he recalled not being able to attend his father’s funeral in Colombia because of his immigration status. “I would ask the government if they made picket lines to reject our help when 9/11 happened. We breathed the same air.”