Helena Independent Record: Daines: Reforms needed for ‘unfair’ firefighter retirement, workers comp system

Calling the current system “unfair,” U.S. Sen. Steve Daines is proposing legislation reforming retirement and workers compensation payments for federal wildland firefighters and law enforcement injured on the job.

The current retirement system allows firefighters working in hazardous conditions retirement after 20 years. However, if they are injured on the job and reassigned to a nonhazardous role, they are subject to a 30-year retirement track.

Overtime and bonuses are not factored into workers compensation payments, meaning an injured firefighter receives only a percentage of base pay. The base is typically only a fraction of firefighters’ annual earnings as overtime pay quickly accrues during long days in the field. 

“It’s a system that is unfair and a fundamental issue of justice and fairness for these firefighters,” Daines said in Helena on Thursday. 

The “Wildland Firefighter Retirement and Disability Compensation Benefits Act of 2016” offers two main reforms.

First, the legislation allows injured firefighters and law enforcement reassigned to non-hazardous jobs to continue on their original retirement track. 

Second, workers compensation payments would be based off of total earnings rather than base pay. 

“You get hurt when you’re that close to retirement and when they get repurposed to a different assignment outside of the hazardous side of a firefighter, now they’re put into a different retirement track of 30 years,” Daines said. “It’s not right.” 

Inspiration for the bill came from the wildland firefighters themselves, he added.

Shane Ralston and Brendan Mullen approached Daines’ office as they recovered from firefighting injuries and found themselves and others fighting for the benefits they earned. While they applaud the legislation, both see it as a first step in bringing attention and reform to a system they feel is broken.

Denial of medical travel payments, misinformation and reimbursement roadblocks became as normal as attending doctor appointments 

As a Smokejumper, Ralston was injured on a jump three years ago. He expected the difficulties of physical rehabilitation, but he never anticipated any issues with paying for his care.

“I work for the Department of Agriculture and I pay my insurance bi-monthly to the Department of Labor, so it would be the same team I would think,” he said. “It’s not. It’s government employees looking to make it as difficult for other injured government employees until they go away.” 

Mullen, the lone survivor of a helicopter crash during a prescribed burn, faced similar frustration as he ran into continual roadblocks in paying for his recovery.

“I accepted a level of risk in this job for sure and things happen, I had some things lined up, but to have dealt with and to be still going down this road I never could’ve comprehended or appreciated, I never would’ve said this could happen,” he said.

Ralston and Mullen praised the Forest Service and their supervisors following their injuries. Both were offered jobs within the fire section and were able to maintain their retirement track. But others have not been as lucky.

An entry-level seasonal firefighter injured and awaiting a disability designation, which can take years, may receive about $1,000 per month from workers compensation as he or she may be recovering fulltime and unable to work.

As Ralston and Mullen spoke to fellow injured firefighters, they found many walked away in frustration from benefits or did not know the benefits available to them.

Their experiences and the stories of others brought them to their senator.

The response from Daines and his office has been a major help, they say. 

“But how many people are out there that need help?” Ralston asked. “Now that it’s on the table, let’s find solutions.” 

Ralston and Mullen hope that the legislation may one day lead to systematic reforms. 

“This is really the tip of the spear and something we can fix now for the greater good,” Mullen said. “Then down the road we need to fix the processes to make it better for everybody.” 

Introducing the bill ahead of the next Congress brings visibility to the issue, Daines said, but he is also looking at the viability of an administrative fix. 

As he reintroduces it next year, finding cosponsors and pushing for hearings are part of Daines’ agenda. Hearings would provide firefighters struggling with the system the chance to testify to lawmakers.

“So often these bills that show up, it’s the stories behind the people that will bring them attention,” Daines said.