Modest security for survivors of stricken public safety officers

As firefighters and law enforcement officers, the prospect of an early death is ever-present. For some, that death is sudden and violent. For others, it is a lingering misery brought about by repeated on-the-job exposures.

For those of us in public safety, individuals who die from cancer they get on the job are every bit as heroic as those who fall on the front lines.

In California and dozens of other states, the well-documented link between public safety jobs and certain ailments has been recognized for over 70 years through “presumption” laws. These laws appropriately recognize a public safety officer’s unforeseen and silent exposures on the front lines.  And, these presumptions are not automatic and are not available to every public safety officer.   

When a presumptive injury or illness takes a public safety officer’s life, their qualified survivors may be eligible to receive a workers’ compensation death benefit if certain conditions are met, including a claim for death benefits that is filed and accepted within a specified “statute of limitations”. 

Under current law, a public safety officer must die from presumptive-related illness or injury just shy of five years or their family loses the ability to receive survivor benefits. Sadly, in most cases, the 240 week limitation isn’t an issue – individuals will die within this time frame. But because of advances in medical science, lives can be extended beyond the 240 week death limit.

This, in our view, is a cruel and arbitrary limitation. For that reason, we’re supporting Assembly Bill 2451 authored by Assembly Speaker John Perez. This bill doesn’t impact current public safety presumptive statutes and won’t alter the existing time period in which a public safety officer’s illness is presumed to be work-related. It won’t give retirees or their families an extra payday. And it won’t bust local budgets. AB 2451 simply says that a claim for workers’ comp. death benefits in instances where a public safety officer succumbs to certain job-caused illnesses will be tied to their date of death, not the date of the diagnosis.

Critics of these widely-recognized presumption laws – essentially the same local government bureaucrats who have opposed them for seven decades – have grossly misrepresented the intent and effect of AB 2451.  With the help of sympathetic editorial writers, they have concocted hyperbolic hypotheticals to paint this bill as an open-ended drain on the public till.  “Nightmare scenarios” are painted of an 80-something firefighter who retroactively applies a presumptive claim in order to scam a death benefit.

In addition to being odious and insulting, these criticisms are factually wrong.  AB 2451 explicitly preserves the mandate that any diagnosis under the presumption laws must be made within the current “statute of limitations.” The “nightmare” of an 80-year-old retroactively using presumption laws to claim a benefit from decades past is fiction.  

Nobody can – or should – receive a death benefit they don’t deserve. But somebody who has contracted a devastating job-related illness shouldn’t have to worry about leaving their family with nothing simply because they have outlived the government’s “death clock.”

We think that providing some modest security for the families of these courageous souls is fair, compassionate and humane.

Ed’s Note: Lou Paulson is president of California Professional Firefighters, representing 30,000 front line firefighters and paramedics. Ron Cottingham is president of Peace Officers Research Association of California, representing over 60,000 police officers and sheriffs deputies.

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