The Providence Firefighters’ Teach-In: The Issue at the Core
As Providence Firefighters’ Local 799 President Paul Doughty made clear, the union job action/teach-in on Sunday afternoon was not centered on the general contract dispute between the union and Mayor David Ciciclline, but on a specific situation involving firefighters Jay Briddy, James Petersen and Steven Schora, all of whom who have contracted cancers that prevent them from performing a full range of active duties.
There are (at least) two different aspects to the grievance that Providence firefighters have with their city’s handling of members of the department who develop cancer. One point of contention is that members of the Providence department do not receive the same level of cancer protection that firefighters in other Rhode Island communities receive. Amanda Milkovits explained this issue in her Projo coverage of the teach-in…
The three firefighters’ applications for disability pensions went before the city retirement board this year. Doughty said the city solicitor found a “legal loophole” where Providence’s disability pensions don’t conform to the state law that presumes firefighters can contract cancer from their occupation.However, beyond the fact the Providence’s handling of these situations is different from the rest of the state, an even more fundamental issue is in play, i.e. whether Providence will approve cancer disabilities under any condition.
The individual doctors for firefighters Briddy, Petersen and Schora will not clear them to return to duty because, in their professional medical judgements, returning to active duty firefighting would pose an unacceptably high cancer risk. However, the city will not allow the firefighters to claim a job-related cancer disability because, according to the union, city policy is to not approve cancer disability claims unless a specific call where cancer was contracted can be determined.
Given that it is extremely rare, if ever, that the cause of anyone’s cancer can be tied to one specific event, the city policy doesn’t seem wholly reasonable.
The union’s position is that if a doctor determines that a firefighter cannot perform his duties because of cancer, the presumption should be that he is entitled to a cancer related disability. And there is pretty solid medical evidence that the cumulative effects of firefighting duties do increase the risk of contracting cancer. The University of Cincinnati, for example, released an extensive study last year on this subject that was reported on by the BBC…
Firefighters are at a far higher risk of developing certain cancers than people in many other professions, US research suggests….Rates of testicular cancer were 100% higher and prostate cancer 28% higher among firefighters, their analysis of 32 US and European studies suggested….At some point, when negotiating future contracts, the cold eyes of the actuaries are going to have to go over the figures, and make sure that benefits that are promised are reasonable, sustainable and won’t bankrupt the city, which may require adjusting future disability levels, cancer or otherwise. But when an organization promises someone a benefit, it has a duty to deliver that benefit, especially in situations involving cancers and career callings, where there is precious little room for do-overs. If the City of Providence has been telling firefighters that they have special protection for cancer, then it has no right to create insurmountable bureaucratic rules intended to prevent anyone from taking advantage of that protection.
The US researchers looked at studies covering 110,000 firefighters, which compared cancer rates in that profession with the general population or other professions, the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine reported.
In addition to the 100% increase in testicular cancer cases among firefighters, the researchers also discovered a 50% increase in non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma.