Creates presumption that federal firefighters disabled by certain serious illnesses contracted them on the job
Today, the House of Representatives voted 288-131 to approve and advance the federal Firefighters Equity Act, HR 2499, a bipartisan measure drafted by Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-CA) that ensures firefighters firefighters receive the same access to job-related disability and retirement benefits as state, county and municipal firefighters.
The bill would create a presumption that firefighters who become disabled from certain serious illnesses contracted them on the job, including heart disease, lung disease, certain cancers and other infectious diseases.
Federal firefighters have not signed legislation establishing the presumption that local firefighters have in 49 of 50 U.S. states — and are obligated to identify specific exposures that may have caused their illness. This burden of proof makes it extremely difficult for federal firefighters to qualify for workers’ compensation and work-related disability benefits.
The measure would improve benefits for more than 20,000 federal firefighters across the United States, about 16,000 of whom are wildland firefighters. It would apply to “staff who have been employed for at least 5 years in total as an employee in fire protection activities”.
The illnesses covered by the legislation, if passed by the Senate and signed by the President, are:
- Bladder cancer, brain cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, colorectal cancer, esophageal cancer, kidney cancer, leukemias, lung cancer, mesothelioma, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer, breast cancer skin (melanoma), testicular cancer, thyroid cancer, and a sudden cardiac event or stroke during, or no later than 24 hours after participating in certain fire-related activities described in the bill.
It was just three weeks ago, on April 19, when the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP), in FECA Bulletin No. 22-07, compiled a list of cancers and pathologies for which the firefighter does not have to provide supporting documents. that their illness was caused by an injury at work.
The medical conditions covered by the OWCP bulletin last month are:
- Cancers: esophagus, colorectal, prostate, testicle, kidney, bladder, brain, lung, oral cavity/pharynx, larynx, thyroid, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, mesothelioma or melanoma; or
- Hypertension, coronary artery disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pulmonary fibrosis, asthma, or sudden cardiac event or stroke.
The OWCP list includes six conditions not listed in HR 2499: oral cavity/pharyngeal cancer, laryngeal cancer, hypertension, coronary artery disease, pulmonary fibrosis and asthma.
HR 2499 covers a disease that is not on the OWCP list, skin cancer, an important addition, especially for wildland firefighters whose job requires them to be outdoors most of the time. The bill includes a method to add other diseases within three years, including breast cancer, if supported by scientific evidence.
The pending bill had 203 co-sponsors in the House, an extraordinarily large number of Representatives who said early on that they were in favor of the bill and wanted to help pass it.
The next stop is the Senate, a place where many bills go to die. Senators Tom Carper (D-DE) and Susan Collins (R-ME) are the main sponsors of a bipartisan accompanying bill there. He has 12 co-sponsors, only two of whom are Republicans. With a 50-50 Dem/Rep balance and a requirement for 60 of 100 senators to vote yes, passage is not a foregone conclusion, despite the House’s overwhelming approval.
“We know that firefighters are routinely exposed to carcinogens at fire scenes. Unfortunately, our brothers and sisters in federal service are too often denied the benefits they deserve when they need them most,” said International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) General President Edward Kelly. “The Federal Firefighters Equity Act brings the federal government into line with all 49 states that recognize the deadly link between firefighting and cancer.”