Due to their work, firefighters face a much greater risk of cancer than other workers. Accordingly, 48 states have passed workers’ compensation laws that presume certain cancers, and other diseases, are work-related. These laws help firefighters qualify more easily for the compensation they need after developing these diseases over years on the job.
But for federal firefighters? That’s not how things have worked. For years, federal firefighters who needed workers’ compensation have faced needless difficulties and a steep burden of proof. Fortunately, that is about to change. Firefighters should soon benefit from actions taken by the Department of Labor and may eventually benefit from a bill currently in the House.
Streamlined claims through the Department of Labor
The Department of Labor recognized that the existing workers’ compensation process was failing firefighters who suffered from occupational diseases. It required firefighters to file claims according to the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA). However, under that system, firefighters faced a heavy burden of proof. They needed to produce all the evidence to show their illnesses were, in fact, work-related.
Given the nature of occupational diseases, many firefighters were unable to draw clear and incontrovertible lines between their work and their illnesses. Instead, they often paid for treatment with private insurance. Some even paid out of pocket.
In response to this problem, the Department of Labor introduced two new policies meant to help federal firefighters:
- Firefighters face new, lower evidentiary standards for certain cancers, heart conditions and lung conditions
- The Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) will establish a special claims unit that will be trained to process firefighters’ claims more quickly and effectively
To see their claims processed through the special claims unit and with the relaxed standards for evidence, firefighters need to meet two conditions:
- Worked as a firefighter for at least five years
- Diagnosed with an eligible condition within 10 years of the last exposure to federal firefighting activities
The OWCP will send claims that meet these requirements to a district medical advisor for expedited review. Firefighters can still pursue claims that do not meet these requirements, but they will need to follow the standard FECA procedures.
The Federal Firefighters Fairness Act
The Department of Labor’s announcement was accompanied by the news of a House bill that would further solidify the strength of firefighters’ claims for occupational diseases. According to a fact sheet designed to accompany the bill, the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act (FFFA) would amend FECA to grant firefighters an automatic presumption of eligibility for certain occupational diseases:
- The FFFA would start with a list of 16 different eligible diseases
- It would apply to firefighters who had engaged in firefighting activities for at least five years
- Within three years, the Secretary of Labor would determine whether to add breast cancer to the list of eligible diseases
- A review process would allow for people to propose a scientific review of other diseases, which could add them to the list if appropriate
- Firefighters submitting FECA claims would be informed about the ability to participate in a registry designed to gather more information about firefighters and occupational diseases
Naturally, since the FFFA is just a bill at this point, it has a long way to go before it might help firefighters. However, it reinforces the idea that the government acknowledges how FECA claims are currently failing firefighters. It also has bipartisan support with 150 cosponsors.
What about existing claims under FECA?
Neither the Department of Labor’s announcement nor the House bill said anything about how these changes could affect current claims. However, they suggest that federal firefighters who see their workers’ compensation claims denied under FECA may have good cause to appeal their cases.
Changes such as these can shift the legal grounding for claims. They can crack open the door for new precedent, and firefighters can look to an experienced attorney for a fresh review.