Updated: 11:59 p.m. Nov. 28
Westfield to discuss better care for fallen officers’ families during PBA contract negotiations
WESTFIELD, NJ — Town officials acknowledged on Tuesday that the death of a police detective before his retirement combined with his wife’s cancer has revealed a healthcare coverage gap in the municipality’s contract with the local PBA.
A 27-year-veteran of the Westfield Police Department, Detective Eric Lieberman died at 47 on May 22, leaving a widow and two boys. He was getting ready for work when his heart failed, said his widow, Tammy Lieberman, in an interview with TAPinto.net.
Under the town’s contract with the PBA Local 90, a retired employee with at least 25 years of service is given health benefits coverage, including that for his or her dependents.
Since Eric Lieberman, a resident of Scotch Plains, never retired, the contract does not require the town to fund health insurance for his beneficiaries: his wife and two boys, ages 14 and 19.
“I find it so odd that his tombstone clearly states his dedication to his service,” Lieberman said. “How could they do this to such a dedicated officer, who worked so hard keeping Westfield safe?”
His pension, she said, is not sufficient to cover the mounting medical costs of her care for stage IV breast cancer. Of particular concern is the estimated $25,000 in continuation of coverage costs she said would have to be paid next year to keep her existing medical coverage.
“He didn’t retire, and because he died, that puts us in a much worse situation,” Lieberman, 44, said. “Instead of getting 100 percent of his pension, I’m only collecting 50 percent.”
A petition posted on Change.org, which asked the town to revisit the health benefits decision, had garnered almost 600 signers as of Wednesday afternoon. The petition asked the public to write to Mayor Shelley Brindle asking the town find a solution.
In a statement issued with Town Administrator Jim Gildea and Westfield PBA President Paul Ferry, Brindle responded on Tuesday evening.
“Detective Lieberman’s passing has identified unintentional health coverage gaps in our collective bargaining agreement in the face of an untimely tragedy,” Brindle said in the statement posted to social media.
“In the absence of a contractual provision to address continuing health care coverage in this case, our policy is to defer to the federal COBRA laws with the knowledge that a substantial life insurance payout and pension benefit traditionally assist in easing any financial burden.”
COBRA requires employers with group health plans to allow persons, who lose health plan coverage, to continue the coverage under the group plan for a fixed amount of time, typically with higher premiums.
The statement said municipal officials and the PBA will discuss improved consideration for deceased officers’ families in the PBA’s next contract.
“We are committed to finding a mutually agreeable resolution that is legally, contractually and fiscally viable in a timely manner to bring peace and security to the Lieberman family,” Brindle said. “With the current contract expiring [next] month, we look forward to addressing the continuation of health coverage in our negotiations.”
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With 550 law enforcement agencies in New Jersey, negotiators will have an array of public safety contracts to look to for examples. A review of some of those contracts by TAPinto.net found practices vary widely among municipalities, even just within Union County.
In neighboring Scotch Plains, the PBA agreement does not extend health benefits to family members after the death of a police officer. In Clark, the same health benefits an officer’s family would have received if the officer retires are given if the officer dies before retirement. The PBA contract in Cranford provides a richer set of benefits to families of officers who die in the line of duty, when compared to officers who die while employed by the municipality, but off duty.
Westfield PBA Local 90 President Paul Ferry did not return requests seeking comment for this story.
Despite Westfield officials’ pledge to find a solution, Lieberman said, none had been arrived at for her family as of Wednesday.
Lieberman, who is from Roselle Park, and has since moved to Florida, where family members can better care for her, believes her family is being cheated out of something her husband earned.
Although separated from her husband at the time of his death, Lieberman said, the couple was working on getting their marriage of more than 20 years back on track. She said her children are the ones likely to be most impacted by the town's decision.
“If he works, there is an expectation that a check is coming and truly, their wages are based on those benefits as part of what they’re offering as part of their contract,” Lieberman said.
Email Staff Writer Matt Kadosh at firstname.lastname@example.org; Follow him on Twitter: @MattKadosh