California News

Bill seeks to extend cap on death benefits for firefighters, law enforcement, prison guards

Monday, August 20, 2012

A bill that extends the five-year cap on death benefits for the families of firefighters or police who die from a job-related illness is gaining steam in Sacramento.

Firefighter Mike Reddell worries about his young family. He's fighting lymphoma for the second time, a blood cancer his doctor says he got in the line of duty.

"If I was to die after five years, then there would be no death benefit for myself or my family," said Reddell.

Currently, for any local firefighter or law-enforcement officer or prison guard who dies within five years of being diagnosed with a job-related illness, their survivors are eligible for death benefits worth at least $250,000.

A bipartisan proposal to remove that five-year cap is one step away from reaching the governor's desk. Supporters say with today's medical advances, public servants should not be penalized for living longer.

"It doesn't seem fair to them or to their survivors that because they have the good fortune to live more than five years, that their survivors get nothing," said Assm. Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento).

Critics are calling the change a giveaway to powerful public-employee unions, creating an open-ended liability for governments for decades.

Cities and counties are ultimately the ones to pay for most of the extra benefits, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

It's conceivable an ex-firefighter in his 80s or 90s could die of cancer, heart ailments or other service-related conditions decades after retirement, and local governments would be on the hook for death benefits, even if they're laying off and closing stations.

"This is a benefit and it's subject to employee-management negotiations," said Assm. Chris Norby (R-Fullerton). "It's not something that should be bestowed by the state legislature, forced on local governments, cities and counties with absolutely no way to pay for it."

With so much bad publicity on public-employee perks lately, the state senate is now considering changing the limit to nine years. Firefighter Mike Reddell feels that's still inadequate.

"I feel that I should be covered the rest of my life. This is not a disease I asked for," said Reddell.

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