Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) has introduced legislation that would make it easier for tens of thousands of federal firefighters, many of them in California, to get disability benefits.
Firefighters for the federal departments of Defense, Interior, and Agriculture have to prove exactly what job-related experience made them sick to get coverage from the federal government. For instance, if they get cancer, they need to point out which particular incident gave them the disease.
Firefighter advocates say it's easier for state and local fire responders to get such coverage.
"They (federal firefighters) do the same job but yet they're not afforded the same benefits," Carbajal said in an interview. "They are currently treated as second-class firefighters."
Battling fire and breathing smoke and other chemicals brings with it a risk of a variety of diseases. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed higher rates of certain types of cancer among firefighters compared with the general population.
The bar shouldn't be higher for firefighters at the federal level to prove such conditions have made them sick over time, Carbajal said.
His legislation would shift the burden of proof from federal firefighters to the Department of Labor. It would "create a presumption that a disability or death of a federal employee in fire protection activities caused by any of certain diseases is the result of the performance of such employee's duty," the proposal states.
The change would affect thousands in California. The U.S. Forest Service alone expects to have 5,000 firefighters available for wildland fire response this year, agency officials said.
"Fires are now year-round, especially in California," Carbajal said, adding that the state relies heavily on federal firefighters to battle some of the nation's largest wildfires. For instance, the Forest Service was heavily involved in the fight against the Soberanes Fire that burned more than 130,000 acres near Big Sur last year and became the costliest wildfire in U.S. history.
On Thursday, Carbajal officially announced the legislation, called the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act of 2017, during a news conference in Lompoc (Santa Barbara County).
He was joined by advocates for federal firefighters, including Charlie Martinez, president of Vandenberg Professional Firefighters.
"Federal firefighters are exposed to the same dangers on a day-to-day basis as their state and municipal brothers and sisters," Martinez said.
Efforts to reform the rules have been going on for 15 years, according to Michael Massone, director of federal firefighter issues at California Professional Firefighters.
"We're asking simply for parity," Massone said. Carbajal's bill "takes the burden away from somebody who's sick and fighting an occupational illness and also trying to fight their employer as well for pay benefits."
Carbajal's predecessor, Rep. Lois Capps, has introduced similar legislation repeatedly. But it's failed every time.
For years there's been opposition to expanding the protections from officials who question the link between firefighting and cancer.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which develops many policies for federal employees, noted that Carbajal's proposal would amend federal code that's administered by the U.S. Department of Labor and referred comment to that federal agency.
A Labor Department spokesman has yet to reply to requests for comment.