Last year, firefighters lined the halls of the state Capitol trying to urge lawmakers to pass legislation that would give them an opportunity to file a workers’ compensation claim for certain types of cancer.
The legislation, which was called the “largest unfunded state mandate on towns and cities in recent history,” died on the House calendar.
But Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington, said she’s been working with a group of firefighters, Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, and municipal leaders since last September to reach a compromise.
Cook said she plans to reintroduce a bill expanding workers’ compensation for firefighters diagnosed with cancer as a result of their work. She also plans to introduce a second bill that would allow municipal firefighters to apply for short- and long-term disability, an option that’s not available in many labor contracts.
Exactly what either bill will say is still unknown at this point, Cook admitted earlier this week. She said they’ve been working to come up with language everyone can agree upon.
She said municipal leaders have acknowledged that firefighters are contracting cancer at higher rates than the general public and they want to help even if their budgets won’t allow for it. She said they’ve been talking about standards to include in the legislation, such as making firefighters ineligible if they are tobacco users and requiring them to certify that they took care of their equipment and received the proper training in order to qualify.
The Centers for Disease Control recently conducted a study of more than 30,000 firefighters and found that they had “twice as many malignant mesothelioma cases than expected.” The report suggests that, “firefighters are at a higher risk of cancers of the digestive, oral, respiratory, and urinary systems.” Many other studies have arrived at the same conclusion: If you are a firefighter, you are more likely to develop cancer.
Hwang, who has participated in the working group, said there’s no conclusive legislation, but they were able to get all the interested parties in a room to sit down and agree that the goal is to eradicate the risk of cancer to firefighters. How they resolve making sure firefighters get the care they need for that cancer, if it’s job related, is still unresolved.
“Interested parties were sitting down and talking to each other,” Hwang said. “It shows there’s a willingness to resolve the issue because let’s face it, nobody ever wants to have cancer.”
Hwang and Cook said they are optimistic they will be able to resolve the issue this year.
“The collaborative effort put forth by all involved has given us hope that our members and their families will finally have the protections necessary through passage of this important legislation this session,” Peter S. Carozza Jr., president of the Uniformed Professional Firefighters Association, said. “Our members are suffering from occupational cancer diagnoses at an alarming rate and this legislation will allow them to concentrate on getting the treatment necessary and to return to work.”
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities did not dismiss the effort and said they were willing to work on finding a solution.
“I appreciate Representative Cook’s efforts and her willingness to work with us on this and many other important issues,” Joe DeLong, executive director of CCM, said.
A spokesman for CCM said that “any common ground that is reached will be based upon meeting the concerns of our firefighters in a manner that is fiscally sustainable for Connecticut towns and cities.”
The largest municipal lobby maintained that the legislation proposed last year was “overly broad and cost prohibitive and if implemented would have placed a tremendous burden on property taxpayers.”
Hwang said part of the problem with last year’s legislation is that at the last minute it was coupled with legislation regarding workers’ compensation for police officers who experienced post-traumatic stress after witnessing a death in the line of duty.
The coupling of so many “complicated issues into one bill” confused the issue for many lawmakers. He said the medical evidence of cancer among firefighters was more conclusive than mental health issues related to police work.
Last year, the combined bill passed the Senate 25-11, but failed to get called for a vote in the House.