October 2, 2007

Not to Be That Guy (Yet Again), But...

Justin Katz

I certainly don't want to raise opposition to men battling cancer, but I'm a little confused, and not entirely assuaged by this:

Providence Firefighters James Petersen Jr. and Jay Briddy have colon cancer, and Lt. Steven Schora has lymphoma. All three are out injured — Petersen since 2005, Briddy since 2004 and Schora since 1997. They are still paid their full salaries and benefits in anticipation that they’ll return to work. But their doctors have told them they aren’t well enough.

Firefighters can retire after 20 years with a pension equaling 50 percent of salary. An accidental-disability pension — which is what the union wants for firefighters with cancer — equals two-thirds of salary, tax-free, with full benefits. Disabled firefighters can also take back all the money they’ve contributed to the pension system, with interest.

According to WebMD, while the causes of both colon cancer and lymphoma remain mysterious, environmental hazards are still considered likely suspects, and if firefighters are exposed to such hazards, the presumption ought to be in their favor. But for all of the noise, I'm not clear on the specifics of the current controversy.

Mr. Schora, for instance, appears to have been collecting full pay and benefits for ten years while on the injured list. Presumably, even if he never makes it back to work, after 20 years, he can retire with the 50% pension. Is the union saying that, in that case, he ought to get the two-thirds pension (etc.), or would he be able to retire sooner because of disability? If he beats the cancer before retirement; does he go back to the regular pension, or would his designation be clinched? Do all other cities offer that deal, or are there a handful that the guys in Providence would like to emulate?

I don't wish to be unduly contentious, but the union ought to consider other people's perspective. As somebody who periodically comes into contact with asbestos, for example, there's a chance that I could contract job-related colon cancer. If that were to happen, I'd be on my own.

Now, I'm not arguing that everybody ought to be in my undesirable circumstances, but part of the reason I'm in them is the horrible absence of opportunity in this state, and part of the reason for that absence is the government and public sector's unsustainable generosity. That being the case, I guess I'm just not as ready to submit to the tone du jour and be relieved that the union didn't actually intend to threaten the disaster drill. Starting from my personal baseline of zero pension and zero concessions should I find myself battling cancer, I'm left with the question of why decades of full pay and a 50% pension isn't enough for people who are surviving their own battles. I also wonder whether improved tracking of hazardous incidents that may result in disease couldn't be put forward as a compromise governing future cases.

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A few answers. Thirty-eight of the thirty nine cities and towns in Rhode Island offer firefighters a presumtive disability pension in the case of cancer. Thirty-nine states and six Canadian provinces offer the same. Providence skirts state law with it's Home Rule Charter. I don't know if other communities have that device in place, if they do they haven't felt the need to use it.

The presumtive cancer clause is a good benefit offered as part of the overall compensation package. It is not a contractual issue subject to negotiation, it is state law.

A 50% pension after 20 years is another good benefit offered as part of the compensation package. We pay 9 1/2% of our salary every week into the pension fund. We are not eligable for social security. Before 20 years a disability pension of 45 % is offered, if disabled. The firefighters in question may be forced into that catagory, unlike most other firefighters in most other places.

Coming into contact with asbestos in a controlled atmosphere is dangerous enough. When it is subject to extreme heat, in a smoke filled atmosphere with no way of even knowing it is there until the smoke clears is altogether different.

Our society should strive to protect the workers who make this country work. Why emulate a company that puts profit before worker safety and financial security? Instead of knocking down government programs that ensure a decent standard of living for disabled workers our time would be better spent improving conditions for everybody. The money is there in the private sector, take a look around, it's right there in front of you. Getting people to do the right thing is the problem.

Public sector money is so badly mismanaged and spent the welfare of disabled workers becomes suspect. Before any other programs, tax breaks for big corperations or other unnecessary spending is implemented we need to take care of our own people, public and privately employed.

Posted by: michael at October 2, 2007 8:30 AM

I thought everybody got automatic disability for life whenever they got any cancer. LOL. Police and fire-the progressives royalty.

Posted by: Mike at October 2, 2007 8:40 AM

Michael, are these guys wearing SCBAs when interior firefighting?

Posted by: Greg at October 2, 2007 8:56 AM


Lt. Schora spoke at length on Sunday. He's been receiving chemotherapy off and on since 1997, so being on active duty for all of that time would have potentially meant receiving chemo one week and running into a burning building the next, which can't be helpful to the chemo.

If I understand the issue properly, the city is trying to move the three firefighters into the regular disability pension (45%) instead of the cancer disability pension (66%).

But most importantly, I think it's very important not to conflate this issue with some of the other pension issues Rhode Island is facing. The cancer disability is a true insurance program, i.e. not everybody who pays into the system expects to collect at the other end; we're talking about 3 people collecting a benefit here. That's a very different situation from the state's more general pension crisis, where everyone who has put money into the system is expecting to get a whole lot out.

The exact contribution and benefit numbers might have to be adjusted going forward, but I find it hard to believe that, with a little planning ahead, the city and the firefighters and the taxpayers can't arrive on a set of numbers that make the cancer disability promise work.

Posted by: Andrew at October 2, 2007 9:26 AM

I don't intend to get into the specifics of these particular cases, but I do expect one thing.

If cancer is to be presumtively work related, then commuities must have the right to control the lifestyle choices of employees enjoying such a benefit. Fire personnel should be prevented from smoking, even in private life. The city must have the right to terminate employees caught smoking, chewing tobacco, smoking marijuana, or other habits that increase cancer risks. The city should also be allowed to reject candidates for appointment as firefighjters if they have a family history of cancer that exceeds normal.

Maybe these management rights are already in the law, but if not, they should be. Then it will be fair to automatically connect cancer to the job.

Posted by: Ben at October 2, 2007 11:09 AM

Firefighters are not allowed to smoke on or off the job. A thorough physical is done before being hired, I don't know if family history is considered. We go through yearly physicals and must meet certain criteria .

SCBA is worn during all structure firefighting, inside and out. There is no way to avoid the toxic fumes on our skin. Equipment malfunctions when least expected, the exposure risk is real.

Posted by: michael at October 2, 2007 12:32 PM

Just curious. I know that wasn't always the case. Personally I think these guys should get the benefit as laid out in the contract. This is just Providence government at its worst.

Posted by: Greg at October 2, 2007 1:01 PM

Actually Greg, the WORST part is that the city wants these guys to NAME THE FIRE that caused their cancer!

Posted by: Brendan at October 2, 2007 1:26 PM

Yeah, I know. The absurdity of it would be enough to laugh it off the books in 49 other states.

Posted by: Greg at October 2, 2007 1:35 PM

“You’ve Got Cancer.”
by Tom Kenney

Those are just the words that Jim “Bucko” Petersen heard from his doctor some eighteen months ago – out of the blue. Bladder cancer. In his mid-forties, with a wife and young kids, in good shape, and in his eighteenth year of a job (career) he loved, life was looking good. Pow!

It’s ironic how quickly a man who was rushing to emergency scenes to help save lives just last week, was now laying in a hospital bed depending on others to save his life – just that quickly. Thanks to his doctors talent, his family’s love and his friends’ support, this story had a happy ending – mostly. After surgery and treatment he was pronounced ‘cancer free’! The down side of this story is that he was left with an external prosthetic bladder which will prohibit him from ever returning to the job he loved so much.

Luckily, most of us can’t even imagine how these words change a person’s whole life – theirs’ and the lives of the people who love them. In an instant, priorities are turned upside down. You begin to think of treatment issues, “quality time” issues, and family protection and financial stability issues become that much more urgent. Your immediate focus is now on those issues that, just yesterday, you had believed you could put off indefinitely. Your responsibility is now solely focused on your health and on your family. Career and advancement are, at least temporarily, no longer important considerations in your decision making process.

In the fire service in general, and the Providence Fire Department in particular, these words are spoken to our members at an alarmingly higher percentage than those in the general population. The long lasting effects of these words, even after waging a successful war on the cancer and sending it into remission, like “Bucko” did, are much more devastating to firefighters than to their non-firefighting counterparts. The ability to return to the profession that provided a livelihood for these firefighters is almost non-existent.

The reason for this is very simple – once cancer is beaten into remission there is always the chance of it returning. Continued exposures to carcinogens would increase this likelihood. According to Roger W. Giese, the director of the environmental cancer research program at Northeastern University, “…the environment, including diet and lifestyle, causes 60 to 90 percent of all cancer.” Many external environmental factors that affect the possible growth of cancer cells in human beings are known – these are called carcinogens. It is a generally accepted theory that those people with higher and more frequent exposures to these carcinogens will ultimately have a higher cancer rate than those who are not subject to these exposures. Firefighters are, after all, exposed to a much higher level (and much more frequently) to known carcinogens (such as, but not limited to, benzene, diesel engine exhaust, chloroform, soot, styrene and formaldehyde) on a day to day basis.

Research headed by Dr. James Lockey (a professor of occupational, environmental and pulmonary medicine at the University of Cincinnati) found that “firefighters are more likely to develop testicular cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer and multiple myeloma compared with the general population.” Also, according to Dr. Lockey’s research, “firefighters’ exposures to carcinogenic toxins occur not when they are in the fire, but when they are in the vicinity of the fire.” Dr. Lockey’s team collected data on 110,000 firefighters from 32 published studies that looked at the risk of 20 different cancers and their study was presented in the November 2006 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

“Long-term exposure to cancer-causing agents increase cancer risk,” Lockey said. “For testicular cancer there is a 100 percent increase in risk, for multiple myeloma there is a 50 percent increased risk, for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma it’s a 50 percent increased risk, and for prostate cancer it’s a 28 percent increased risk, compared to non-firefighters,” he said. “Overall we found 10 cancers (out of the 20 that were looked at) that were either possible or probable that were related to firefighting.”

Fire fighters are routinely exposed to the hundreds of toxins and carcinogens contained in ‘ordinary’ smoke from a modern structure and contents fire. Firefighters accept this increased risk of cancer as an occupational hazard. As new studies identify hazards and new technologies allow increased protection, firefighters attempt to minimize their exposures. There is no way, however, to completely eliminate these exposures as they are found in fires, and around the fire areas, and in the firehouse (as is the case with diesel exhaust fumes and dried toxins on equipment and firefighting gear). Although researchers have made great strides in identifying different toxins as carcinogens (cancer causing elements) there is no test that can determine which carcinogen or which exposure caused any individual cancer. This is why it is so important for firefighters to be protected with a law that gives them (the firefighters) a presumption that their cancer was job related.

More than half the states in the U.S., and all of Canada have some sort of firefighter Cancer Presumptive Bill. The State of Rhode Island has such a bill that protects “Any firefighter…”. Unfortunately, according to the RI State Supreme Court “a law of specific application (The City of Providence’s Home Rule Charter) trumps a law of general application (RIGL 45-19.1 the cancer benefits for firefighters statute). The City of Providence allows it’s Retirement Board to make the determination as to which injuries/illnesses are job related – there is no presumption for any illness or injury. Among the obstacles placed in the accidental disability retirement requirements are – a person must be able to point to an individual incident (not a multitude of exposures) on the job that caused his injury/illness. This information is impossible to ascertain in a diagnosis of cancer. Also, this exposure must have taken place within an 18-month period prior to submitting his application for the pension. Again, most cancers take 5 years or more after the exposure to be diagnosed. This clause, in and of itself, would effectively prohibit any Providence firefighter from receiving an Accidental Disability Pension for any cancer even if he were able to definitively point to a single exposure as a cause of the illness.

The ultimate effect of the rules set forth under our pension system is that no Providence firefighter will retire as a result of job-related cancer - despite the fact that numerous studies show that many different cancers are increased up to 100 percent in firefighters over the general population. These studies also show that the more exposures these firefighters were subjected to, the higher the likelihood they would be diagnosed with cancer. What this means is that every firefighter in the State of Rhode Island, with the exception of those firefighters who serve on the busiest fire department in the state (with, by far, the most exposures), is covered with a presumptive cancer clause for an accidental disability pension. This is ludicrous. No firefighter feels that by being diagnosed with cancer he/she is “hitting the lottery” by receiving an accidental disability pension. The Accidental Disability Pension merely allows the firefighter a better opportunity to provide for his family by increasing his pension benefits and to continue cancer-related medical treatments without the constant worry of how he’s going to pay for the bills.

There are presently a number of Providence firefighters who have been diagnosed with cancer and recently been turned down in their application for an Accidental Disability Pension – “Bucko” Petersen is one. The reason for the denial is that they cannot prove the cancer was contracted “on the job” under the prohibitive rules set forth in the retirement code. The Providence Fire Department, however, considered these members as IOD (Injured On Duty) and paid them as such during the entire time they were unable to work following their diagnoses – in at least one case this was in excess of ten years! An Accidental Disability Pension would allow the retired member to seek the best treatment for his illness without having to worry about decreases in his retirement health care coverage in the future. This cut in retirement health coverage, a real possibility, has been proposed by the same city administration which refuses to acknowledge his illness/injury as job related.

“Bucko” Petersen and the other members of the department who have been struck down by this terrible disease would love to return to the days when they simply went to work and did their jobs. None of them wanted to leave the department. They weren’t given any choice in the matter. They fought the battle against the cancer and won. In the process, however, they lost their ability to provide for their families as firefighters. Now the Retirement Board is blocking them from receiving their ‘just’ benefits – and we need to fight for them.

Posted by: Tom Kenney at May 25, 2008 10:35 PM
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