The House Has Approved Federal Firefighter Workers Comp Reform, and More
A weekly roundup of pay and benefits news.
The House on Wednesday voted 288-131 to pass legislation aimed at making it easier for federal firefighters to claim federal disability benefits in connection with a number of chronic health conditions.
The Federal Firefighters Fairness Act (H.R. 2499), introduced by Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Calif., would establish a presumption that federal firefighters with at least five years of service who develop any one of a number of serious health conditions, including lung diseases and long, brain and digestive system cancers, did so due to on-the-job exposure to smoke and other hazardous materials for the purposes of securing workers compensation benefits through the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act.
Until recently, federal firefighters who developed chronic conditions like lung cancers struggled to secure federal workplace disability benefits because it is difficult to trace those illnesses to a specific incident of exposure to smoke or other hazardous materials. Last month, the Labor Department set up a special claims unit to handle workers compensation requests from federal firefighters and waiving the requirement that they provide evidence to prove a causal relationship between their work and their condition.
Proponents argued that the requirement that federal firefighters prove that a series of chronic diseases that have been linked to firefighting developed due to on the job exposure, particularly since state and local firefighters in 48 states already benefit from a presumption that those conditions were caused on the job.
“Our federal firefighters are fighting shoulder to shoulder with their state and local counterparts, but those state and local counterparts have benefits and presumptions that our federal firefighters do not,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. “[There] is an often insurmountable burden of proof to prove that their disabilities occurred on the job . . . Multiple studies have established the link between these illnesses and the dangers they face in their service, and 48 states have similar laws creating these assumptions for municipal, county and state firefighters.”
But some Republicans opposed the measure, arguing that it would allow federal firefighters who develop cancers due to non-work related activities to receive benefits they aren’t entitled to, and that it would create a “two-tiered” system of federal workers seeking workers compensation benefits.
“For example. if a federal Border Patrol agent contracts skin cancer from sun exposure due to their duties, it would go through the FECA claims process, but if a firefighter gets lung cancer from smoking, they’re automatically entitled to benefits under the legislation,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C. “The federal government should not treat workers differently based on their occupations.”
But Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., said the federal government has already created similar presumptions in other cases.
“Energy Department employees have presumption-based benefits for cancers and illnesses they’re at heightened risk for developing,” Scott said. “And the [Veterans Affairs Department] presumes certain conditions were caused by military service, like those associated with Agent Orange. There’s the black lung benefits program, the program benefiting 9/11 first responders, that all likewise operate in many cases based on presumption.”
In addition, thanks to a unanimously adopted amendment from Rep. David Joyce, R-Ohio, all federal workers who must provide evidence to prove an injury occurred on the job would have 60 days to submit that evidence, rather than the current 30 day deadline.
The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.
Lawmakers Push Special Pay Rate to Recruit Firefighters
A bipartisan and bicameral group of 27 lawmakers on Tuesday urged the Biden administration to establish a special pay rate to recruit federal firefighters, in the face what they described as “critical staffing shortages” at the start of the annual wildfire season.
In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Office of Personnel Management Director Kiran Ahuja, the lawmakers, led by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., said a special pay rate is necessary, particularly as the demand for wildland firefighters grows each year.
“Years of low pay and other issues have hollowed out the federal wildland firefighting workforce,” they wrote. “Last year, fire officials were unable to fill an unprecedented 1,800 interagency requests for wildland firefighting crews, and more than 1,900 requests for fire engines. In one state, the U.S. Forest Service had 60 engines idle because of low staffing in the midst of the largest fire in state history.”
According to the letter, officials have estimated staffing will be below 75% of authorized positions in some regions this year. They urged OPM to establish a special pay rate to attract new firefighters, and to consider adding a number of benefits to the position as the agency plans to establish a new occupational series for wildland firefighters as part of the implementation of the bipartisan infrastructure law.
“This job series is an important step towards a sustainable livelihood and career path for federal wildland firefighters, with other steps to include housing support, modified scheduling and leave policies that reflect the unique nature of wildland firefighting,” they wrote. “A new job series that maintains the status quo could lead to a surge in resignations just as fire season begins, and OPM must be clear about how it will use special authorities in the near term to address any shortcoming in the new wildland firefighter occupational series.”