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Veteran Union Lawyer Pegs Public-Interest Firm to Zadroga Bill

Published: February 18, 2011

Publication: The Chief

By Flora Fair

For the 9/11 community, the Zadroga bill will mean financial relief and necessary health care. For one labor lawyer, it presents an opportunity to expand his practice by offering long-term service in the public interest.

In a Manhattan office crammed with legal files, Arthur Schwartz recently laid out his plans for a non-profit public-interest law firm whose initial focus will be on helping people file claims for the Victim’s Compensation Fund and health benefits under the World Trade Center Health Program.

“Although there are a number of public-interest law firms around the country, maybe 20 of them are substantial,” he said, referring to those firms with more than five attorneys on staff.

Fills Void Left by ACORN

Mr. Schwartz has spent 30 years as a labor lawyer, handling cases for Transport Workers Union Local 100 and several District Council 37 locals. Much of his time was spent with the now-defunct advocate for low-income families, ACORN. Once it fell apart, Mr. Schwartz saw an opportunity to form his own public-interest firm, Advocates for Justice.

“What sparked forward motion on it is the Zadroga bill,” he said. “It clicked.”

Attorneys at Advocates for Justice will help people navigate the benefit processes under Zadroga. Once they have collected their fee, they will “tithe” a percentage of it back into the organization to get it up and running.

The organization’s mission, according to its website, is to “reach out broadly to the affected community,” which, in addition to first-responders, includes residents, professionals and students who lived, worked or went to school in the radius of the toxic dust cloud. “It is our belief that many in this group would fail to avail themselves of the opportunities to be medically monitored or to make application for benefits without the involvement of a public-interest based educational effort, and a community organization and union based effort to encourage broad involvement,” it states.

More Eligible for Zadroga

Mr. Schwartz said one of the biggest issues is educating residents and workers about their rights to health care and compensation under the bill. In addition to working with unions and other organizations, they plan to do educational outreach for residents and workers in the areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn that were affected.

“Everybody’s considered a survivor who went down there,” said Mike Kenny, the vice president of Civil Service Technical Guild Local 375 of District Council 37, which was once represented by Mr. Schwartz. “The EPA said it was safe to be there and people went back to work.”

Mr. Kenny advocated for the Zadroga bill, and also testified at a subcommittee in 2006 on his seven months working on the pile. He said such testimony changed minds. “It made it real. It wasn’t just special interests yelling,” he explained. He lobbied for the bill in Washington, DC with John Feal, founder of the Feal Good Foundation, an advocacy group for 9/11 responders.

Advocacy Continues

Mr. Feal is already fielding hundreds of calls and e-mails from first-responders seeking advice on how to manage the Zadroga claims process. He is also launching outreach efforts through the Feal Good Foundation, and when he heard of Mr. Schwartz’s plan, he said, “God bless him.”

The foundation has already identified six law firms it feels are qualified to help 9/11 victims, and attorney Sean Riordan helps connect people to them. Mr. Feal said that legal counsel is important when it comes to receiving assistance through Zadroga.

“I recommend every responder, every member of Lower Manhattan, every survivor group get legal representation before they go before the Special Master,” he said.

Mr. Feal plans to hold a forum with Citibank in March to help 9/11 responders decide how best to manage money they receive from the fund. He has also advised some people with minor illnesses to wait and see if they develop something more serious, since payments from the fund are a one-time shot. “This is it. This is the rest of your life,” he said. “But it’s hard to try to tell somebody to wait when they’ve been waiting for nine years.”

Awaiting Claims Process

Everyone is now waiting for the appointment of the Special Master, who will administer all the guidelines and programs associated with the bill. Mr. Feal said, “We need the program up and running so people can have questions answered.”

Once the fund is opened and a claims process established by the Special Master, things will be more hectic for the Advocates for Justice attorneys working out of Mr. Schwartz’s office. “It’s really about advocating and putting people’s claims together in a way that’s beneficial,” Mr. Schwartz said, adding that it’s still going to take time. “My guess is that the [VCF] claims process doesn’t open for six months,” he said. “Last time, most people got paid in two years.”

Mr. Schwartz wants Advocates for Justice to work on issues including civil rights, consumer protection, and environmental justice—but it all begins with Zadroga.

“I’m hoping that if we’re successful, it can grow this public-interest law firm into something that services lots of people,” he said.

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