The Township Committee voted in opposition of a state Assembly bill that, if passed, would create a presumption of worker’s compensation coverage for any death or disability of first responders.
According to the township’s joint insurance fund, the bill (A1196) would prove to be “very expensive” for municipalities, Township Administrator and Municipal Clerk Veronica Laureigh said at a recent committee meeting.
“While we agree that public safety volunteers and employees, including police officers, firefighters and members of ambulance squads should be adequately compensated, New Jersey’s current laws are already one of the broadest in the country,” said Dennis Henry, consulting zctuary for the Municipal Excess Liability (MEL) Joint Insurance Fund in a letter to the township.
The bill, which was approved by an Assembly panel Dec. 10, would ensure workers who suffer due to “extreme work requirements” would be “adequately covered,” a news release from primary sponsor Linda Stender’s (D-Union/Middlesex/Somerset) office said.
“These workers are our first line of defense. Their jobs are not only stressful, they are dangerous,” she said.
"Public safety workers expose themselves to dangerous situations that could prove debilitating and even deadly," said primary sponsor Joseph Egan (D-Middlesex/Somerset). "The work is grueling not just physically, but mentally. The work itself can be a health hazard. They deserve comparable coverage."
Public Safety workers covered in the bill include paid or volunteer emergency, correctional, fire, police and medical personnel.
The bill requires the following:
- A presumption of workers’ compensation coverage for any death or disability, including post traumatic stress disorder, if the ailment arises in response to a terrorist attack, epidemic or other catastrophic emergency, in which the worker is exposed to pathogens or biological toxins from biological warfare or epidemics, hazardous chemicals used in, or related to, chemical warfare, or cancer-causing radiation or radioactive substances, or witnesses death.
- Employers of public safety workers to provide psychological and social counseling for the workers during and after the incidents or emergencies.
- All care and treatment of a public safety worker who is exposed to a serious communicable disease, biological warfare, an epidemic-related pathogen or biological toxins, is compensable under workers’ compensation, even if the worker is found to not have contracted the disease.
- Workers’ compensation coverage for any injury, illness or death of any employee arising from an inoculation program required by the employer.
- Due to the high likelihood of firefighters being exposed to smoke and carcinogens, cancer is a compensable occupational disease for any firefighter with five or more years of service.
- Employers to maintain records of instances of the workers deployed where the presence of known carcinogens was indicated.
- Employers may require workers to undergo, at the employers expense, testing, evaluation and monitoring of worker health conditions relevant to determining whether exposures or other presumed causes are actually linked to the deaths, illnesses or disabilities.
The township Committee opposed the bill with the three Republicans opposing, Democrat Sean Sharkey supporting and Democrat Helen DelaCruz abstaining.
“I read the bill. The way that I interpret it is that it very specifically for those responders who are responding to a catastrophic event,” Sharkey said. “We’re literally talking about people who rushed into burning buildings on Sept. 11.”
Those who oppose the bill are primarily insurance company lobbyists, Sharkey said.
“I understand that there may possibly be a cost increase to the municipality, which I do, of course, have a problem with. However, we have a moral obligation to protect those who are going to protect us,” he said.
Mayor David Most said that by opposing the bill he is not advocating that first responders should not be adequately compensated. Modifications need to be made, he said, using cancer as an example of an area that should be reconsidered.
“Obviously, that’s not getting hurt on the job,” Most said. “I think they need to revisit and have more dialogue over it so they don’t put such a liability on the townships, as well.”
“I don’t think anybody sitting up here in this room is not 100 percent in favor of doing everything we can for our emergency service people,” Deputy Mayor Gary Quinn said. “But don’t forget, this is being debated by politicians.”
Municipalities’ opposing the bill puts it back under a spotlight, Quinn said. Before implementation, the bill has to be revisited so that it doesn’t cost municipalities.
The bill, as written, would make it “almost impossible” for municipalities to contest claims that have nothing to do with injuries and illnesses caused on the job, Henry said.
“This bill places the burden of proof on the municipality, county or state to show that the cancer was not caused by an on-the-job exposure. As a practical matter, this is almost impossible,” he said.
First responder presumptions should be outside of the workers’ compensation system because Medicare and health insurance currently cover much of the costs of medical bills.
“In effect, A-1196 as it is currently written requires municipal, county and state budgets to subsidize the federal government and health insurers by millions each year,” Henry said.
Municipal workers compensation costs are approximately $400 million per year and could potentially double if the legislation passes, he said.
The MEL has offered to work for a balanced solution and advises Legislature to complete a fiscal impact study before proceeding, he said.
President of the Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 238 Keith Pearce agreed that the bill specifically covers catastrophic events first responders may face.
“It’s a necessary update to workers’ compensation to include biological warfare, terrorist attack, epidemic, exposure to cancer-causing radiation,” he said. “As a first responder, I am in favor of the bill.”