Due to what is believed to be a misinterpretation of current law, the state does not currently consider wildland firefighters eligible to file workers’ compensation claims if they contract cancer as part of their work.
Rep. Jeff Yaroch, R-Richmond, is looking to change that. A former firefighter himself, Yaroch spearheaded changes early last year to expand protections for firefighters who have contracted cancer to include those specific to women, as well as allowing firefighters part-timer to apply for coverage.
This is all made possible through the Christopher R. Slezak Presumed First Responders Hedge Fund, formerly known as the Presumed First Responders Hedge Fund. It came after a firefighter of the same name, employed by the Sterling Heights Fire Department, was forced into medical retirement due to a diagnosis of leukemia.
Slezak was not eligible for workers’ compensation because he could not definitively prove that his cancer was due to his years of firefighting, which spanned from 1998 to 2019. He died later later on November 25, 2020, at the age of 48.
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Since the fund’s inception, a first responder filing a workers’ compensation claim under the law must meet one of several criteria, including being a full-time member of a fire department/authority fire department, or if his diagnosis was obtained after January 1, 2022.:
- Be a former full-time member of a fire department or public fire authority;
- Be a current or former part-time, paid-on-call or volunteer member of a fire department or public fire authority;
- Be a current or former part-time, paid-on-call, volunteer or full-time Wildland Fire Fighter/Accident Rescuer.
The cancer presumption was something that started out with only full-time firefighters, although wildland firefighters and female cancers were added later at the start of this legislative session. Somehow, Yaroch said, despite these additions being made, the Ministry of Labor and Economic Opportunity website did not list wildland firefighters as a covered party under the law. from Michigan.
This is despite the fact that politicians believe the current law has actually counted them for this benefit.
“It was their opinion, the way they read the law, that current wildland firefighters are not included. … In my six years in the legislature, I’ve found that every once in a while it happens, where someone reads (a bill) differently,” Yaroch said. “So we, all of us who voted for it, thought the best thing to do was to clean it up as best we could.”
This led to a discussion with the agency, Yaroch said, which in turn resulted in the creation of Bill 6360.
A first responder must additionally meet five other points to be considered an eligible candidate. These include having or having had 60 months or more of active service in the public fire service or authority; and have been diagnosed with cancer of the respiratory tract, bladder, skin, brain, kidney, blood, thyroid, testicles, prostate, lymph, ovary, breast or non-HPV cervix.
If diagnosed with non-HPV ovarian, breast, or cervical cancer, the diagnosis must have been made on or after January 1, 2022. Additionally, a first responder must have been exposed to the hazards of fire suppression, rescue, or emergency medical services. in the performance of his or her work-related duties with the department or authority; as well as having requested and taken all necessary steps to be eligible for the retirement benefits to which he may be entitled.
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“No, none are added, none are taken away, we are not changing the benefits,” Yaroch said of his bill. “We’re just cleaning up the language so there’s no confusion as to our intent.”
The Michigan State Firemen’s Association, the Michigan Professional Fire Fighters Union and the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity all supported the bill, but did not testify at last month’s hearing.
As the bill has not been sent to the full House, it awaits a vote by the full Rules and Competitiveness Committee at a later date.
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