Firefighters with cancer will soon qualify for workers’ compensation

Firefighters are developing cancer at an alarming rate. But soon, they'll finally get to collect workers' compensation – thanks to the new state budget.

John Craven

Jun 9, 2023, 9:36 PM

Updated 309 days ago


Firefighters are developing cancer at an alarming rate. But soon, they'll finally get to collect workers' compensation – thanks to the new state budget.
Bridgeport firefighter Jonathan Pabon got the news during a routine visit to the doctor. The diagnosis? Lung cancer.
“I'm grateful for it,” said Pabon. “I'm grateful for it, because it allowed me to have a different appreciation of life.”
Pabon is not alone. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show firefighters’ leading cause of death is now cancer.
“We’ve had young firefighters – you know, 30 years old and so – with these cancers,” West Haven Fire Chief James O’Brien told News 12 in 2021.
For the past seven years, firefighters with cancer have fought for workers’ comp coverage. But every year, towns, cities and insurers defeated the idea over cost concerns.
“We think that the firefighters should receive these benefits,” said Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. “We've always held that view, but we didn't think that the benefits should be supported through property taxes.”
But this year, CCM reached a deal with state lawmakers and the Uniformed Professional Fire Fighters Association of Connecticut. Under the new two-year budget, firefighters with cancer can collect “workers' compensation-like” benefits and retirement disability.
“The program is actually going to mirror workers' compensation. It's going to be run through a separate fund, but as far as the firefighters concerned, it's going to operate exactly the same way,” said UPFFA of Connecticut president Peter Brown. “While they're out getting treatment, they're going to be receiving their pay and benefits through their municipality.”
The state will reimburse municipalities through a Firefighters’ Cancer Relief Fund. The new budget injects $5 million into the fund – and that money could grow, because it will get invested.
“The goal is to get a fund that almost self-sustains, and can pay claims year-over-year,” said Brown.
That fund already helps replace up to two years of sick firefighters’ wages, but it doesn’t include medical, disability or survivor benefits. It has been chronically underfunded since it was created in 2016.
There are limits to who can collect workers’ compensation. Firefighters only qualify if a physical reveals no “propensity for the cancer.”
They also have to be on the job for five years and haven’t smoked cigarettes in 15 years.
A major reason is firefighters’ turnout gear. It’s coated with PFAS, a fire repellent now linked to various cancers. The state budget includes an addition $3 million in grants to replace that gear. Last year, lawmakers also required fire departments to implement “a remediation plan for toxic substances on firefighter turnout gear.”
Nationally, Congress is exploring options too.
“That's why I am so dedicated to achieving legislation providing better protection,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut).
O’Brien also believes modern building materials are contributing to the spike.
"Years ago, it was mostly cotton and wood fabrics,” he said in 2021. “Now we have all these synthetics and plastics.”
Firefighters can start collecting benefits in October. But there’s a catch. If the Firefighters’ Cancer Relief Fund runs out of money, the benefits will end.
For Pabon, the help can’t come soon enough. His medical bills are mounting.
Last month, fellow first responders held a “Battle of the Badges” charity basketball game to raise money.
“It's humbling,” said Pabon. “Me and my family appreciate everything that everyone's done.”

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