When San Francisco firefighter Tony Stefani developed a rare cancer in 2001, he used up all of his sick and vacation leave during his treatment. Two hundred of his fellow officers donated their own sick time so he could continue collecting a paycheck while he recovered. In order to enroll in disability benefits, he had to go before a worker’s compensation judge and document that he had contracted his disease from his line of work, reports The Atlantic.
Mounting evidence suggests many firefighters do get cancer from the toxins they encounter in burning homes, but the connection can be difficult to prove. Nonetheless, Stefani was eventually awarded disability status, and other firefighters in San Francisco might now have an easier time of it. Last year, the city passed a law saying that when a firefighter gets any form of cancer, it will be presumed to be a result of his or her job.
But firefighters in other states and cities lack the same protections. Although firefighting is associated with a far greater risk of developing cancer than many other professions, 14 states don’t recognize the link between cancer and firefighting when it comes to awarding worker’s comp and medical benefits. In those states, firefighters must prove that their cancer originated at specific fires. Firefighters’ groups, such as the International Association of Fire Fighters, argue that can be impossible to track because the carcinogens that first responders are exposed to accumulate over time.
In Kentucky, firefighter Chris Miller also relied on donated sick time when he was diagnosed with lymphoma 10 years ago. “I had no sick time, I had nothing to cover me,” he said. “I would have wound up off work, no pay, COBRA [health insurance] coverage, shelling out $1,000 per month.” His union is currently fighting for a so-called “cancer presumptive” law in his state.
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