Firefighters’ disability pay called ‘pretty sweet deal’

An average of five Clark County firefighters each year wind up with chronic ailments such as heart failure and back injuries that end their careers.

When they leave the job, they get not only a workers’ compensation settlement but also two years of wages from the county ranging from $300,000 to $500,000 per person.

That’s considerably more than other county union employees and police receive as well as firefighters in many cities. And it well surpasses disability benefits that local construction workers get in private industry for jobs in which injuries are common.

Disabled county firefighters get up to a year with pay to recover. Then they receive two years of pay when they leave, and can cash in up to 2,400 hours of accrued sick leave, depending on their length of service.

The money for those payouts comes from the county’s general operating fund, which is fed mostly by tax dollars and various fees charged to the public.

The lump sum for wages alone cost the county $722,000 in 2009 and $1.4 million in 2010.

The two years of pay irks one county commissioner, who calls it another excessive perk that was embedded in the labor contract before the county fell into a severe budget crisis. The financial crunch could be compounded next year if the Legislature takes money from local governments to fill a projected $2.7 billion state shortfall.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak said he hopes the payouts are being discussed in arbitration between the county and the firefighters union, set to wrap up within a couple of weeks. But he added that he has no idea if they are because commissioners are shut out from all labor talks.

He acknowledged that firefighters have a job that can wear them down physically, but argued that the county simply can’t afford these benefits.

“We just don’t have the money,” said Sisolak, an outspoken critic of fire­fighters’ compensation.

No other county employees receive two years wages as part of a disability payout, including police, hospital staff and members of the county’s largest public employee union, he said.

“I’m a big believer in treating everyone fairly,” Sisolak said. “No one gets anything close to this.”

PHYSICAL STRESSES

Ryan Beaman, president of Inter­national Association of Firefighters Local 1908, didn’t respond to phone calls or questions e-mailed to him on the topic.

In the past, however, union leaders have stated that firefighters have a physically demanding job that exposes them to infectious diseases on medical calls and deprives them of sound sleep during their 24-hour shifts. Heart, lung, back and joint ailments are common long-term health problems among firefighters, according to county fire officials.

Roughly 650 county firefighters respond to calls, and more than 70 percent of the calls are for medical emergencies.

However, the disability payout applies to all firefighters covered in the contract, including those in less physically taxing jobs, such as fire investigators, inspectors and trainers.

Clerks and other office workers in the Fire Department are covered under a Service Employees International Union contract and don’t get the two years severance pay.

Physical and emotional stresses on the job are a big reason why firefighters and police can draw pensions from the Public Employees Retirement System after 25 years — meaning, as young as their mid-40s.

Most local government workers who are disabled on the job, including public safety employees, get monthly payments through workers’ compensation or some other insurance plan.

Nevada employers must carry workers’ compensation insurance to cover employees’ job-related injuries or illnesses. Payments are based on the severity of the impairment, and can go until the person retires, dies or recovers, depending on the policy.

A special provision is made for firefighters in Nevada who suffer heart or lung disease or cancer linked to their jobs. State law requires that they be paid $3,500 monthly in workers’ compensation until they die. Then their spouses receive the payments until they die.

UNUSUAL PERK

But receiving insurance settlements plus two years of wages, as county firefighters do, is unusual.

You’ll find no such severance pay in the cities of Las Vegas, Henderson and Tucson, Ariz., as well as the Metropolitan Police Department and the Service Employees International Union Local 1107, which represents about 9,500 county workers.

“That’s a pretty sweet deal,” said Kenny Lee, Tucson Fire Department’s human resources manager, referring to the two years of additional pay.

A local police union leader agreed.

“Fire’s cash-out is much more lucrative than police,” said Chris Collins, executive director of the local Police Protective Association.

Police have a department-paid insurance plan that pays a cash settlement to a disabled officer, who can accept it as a lump sum or spread it over two decades, Collins said. Affected officers with at least five years service also can draw their pensions immediately, based on the time they’ve put in.

Disabled police officers who retire early can’t cash in more than 1,250 hours of sick leave, versus fire­fighters who are capped at 2,400 hours, the equivalent of more than a year’s pay, Collins said.

In contrast, workers in private sector jobs typically can’t accumulate more than a couple of months of paid leave.

The disparity between police and firefighter payouts puzzled Sisolak, who noted that police have physical demands with their job, too, such as tussling with suspects.

“I wonder how one got so much, and some didn’t,” Sisolak said. “I think they (firefighters) are the most politically influential union.”

In the building industry, union employees who are disabled on the job receive workers’ compensation. If they’re sidelined for longer than a year, they also can draw part or all of their pensions, depending on the labor contract, said Darren Enns, secretary treasurer for the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council.

Non-union employees who become disabled usually receive workers’ compensation, and nothing else, said Warren Hardy, a building industry advocate and former state senator.

County firefighters are getting paid much more for injuries than construction workers whose jobs are more consistently strenuous, Hardy said.

“It’s probably more physically demanding … day in and day out,” he said of construction. “Careers are definitely shorter.”

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at
swyland@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.

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