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Agencies Ease Disability Benefits Rules for Feds, and More

A weekly roundup of pay and benefits news.

The Biden administration announced two initiatives over the last week aimed at making it easier for some federal workers and military veterans to receive disability benefits associated with chronic conditions that have been linked with their job duties.

Last week, the Labor Department announced a long anticipated easing of the evidentiary burden that federal firefighters bear to prove that an array of cancers and other long-term heart and lung conditions were caused by exposure to smoke and chemicals while fighting wildfires when seeking workers compensation benefits.

Under the new policy, a federal firefighter who develops cancer or other chronic heart and lung conditions and applies for benefits under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act no longer will have to offer evidence to prove that their condition was caused by a specific incident or exposure to hazardous materials, provided they have been engaged in firefighting for at least five years and the conditions were diagnosed within 10 years of their last exposure.

Additionally, all workers compensation claims from federal firefighters will be handled by a new special claims unit within the Labor Department, staffed with experts trained specifically on the issues firefighters face both on the job and when applying for disability benefits.

Then on Monday, the Veterans Affairs Department announced that it was adding nine rare respiratory cancers associated with burn pits to the list of disabilities that are covered on a presumptive basis, following through on a promise President Biden made during his State of the Union address.

Like the Labor Department’s change, the new rule at VA means that veterans will no longer have to provide evidence tying their cancer to a specific exposure to a burn pit during their time with the armed services. The policy change impacts all veterans who spent any time either in the Southwest Asia theater of operations since Aug. 2, 1990, or in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Syria or Djibouti since Sept. 19, 2001.

The initiative covers both veteran disability claims moving forward, as well as claims that previously had been rejected due to lack of causal evidence. VA officials encouraged veterans to resubmit their rejected claims for review under the new policy.

A Hockey Game to Benefit Law Enforcement Survivors

Employees at the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service will compete in a charity hockey game near Washington, D.C., April 30, with proceeds going toward a charity that aids the families of dead federal workers and first responders.

Money raised at the game, which will take place at the Washington Capitals’ practice facility in Arlington, Va., will go toward Heroes Inc., a nonprofit that supports the spouses and children of law enforcement officers, firefighters and federal employees who died in the line of duty in the D.C. area.

The two agencies have been squaring off in hockey on a regular basis since 2002, when officials came up with the idea as a benefit for people impacted by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Over the last two decades, the agencies have raised between $200,000 and $250,000 for a variety of charities.

Brendan Westphal, captain of the Secret Service’s hockey team, said that organizers hope to raise between $12,000 and $15,000 through ticket sales at this year’s game. Agency funds are not used to put on the event, with the players using their own money to rent ice time and pay referees.

“This year the special guests . . .  at the ceremonial puck drop will be Hurricane, the retired [Secret Service] special operations canine who was a 2022 recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal, and Wally, the FBI’s crisis response canine,” said an FBI spokesperson.

Courtney Buble contributed to this column