Carbajal Testifies on Health Benefit Disparity for Federal Firefighters in Committee Hearing
Urges Education and Labor Committee to Pass Federal Firefighters Fairness Act
Washington, DC, December 2, 2021
This afternoon, Congressman Salud Carbajal testified before the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Workforce Protection in support of his bill, the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act. This bipartisan bill ensures federal firefighters receive the same access to job-related disability and retirement benefits as state, county, and municipal firefighters.
In order to receive disability benefits under current federal law, federal firefighters are required to pinpoint the precise incident or exposure that caused a disease for it to be considered job-related. This burden of proof is extraordinarily difficult for firefighters to meet because they work in such a wide variety of environments and conditions and it is not required of most state, local, and municipal firefighters.
“Thank you for the opportunity today to testify in support of my bipartisan legislation, H.R. 2499 – the Federal Firefighter Fairness Act that I have introduced with Representatives Bacon, Takano, and Fitzpatrick.
“This Congress, this Congress, marks the third time I have introduced this legislation since I was elected to represent the Central Coast of California in 2016.
“In all these years, this is the first time this critical bill has received a hearing, and for that, I want to thank and acknowledge the leadership of Chairwoman Adams who is bringing it before members of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee for consideration.
“The Federal Firefighter Fairness Act ensures federal firefighters receive the same access to disability and retirement benefits as their peers who are state, county, and municipal firefighters and who often fight the same exact fires.
“Like most firefighters in the United States, it would create the same presumption that federal firefighters who become disabled by serious diseases, like certain cancers, lung disease, heart disease and infectious diseases, contracted the illness on the job.
“Under the current federal law, federal firefighters are required to precisely identify an incident or exposure that caused a disease for it to be considered job-related. The burden of proving that one specific incident or an exposure to a disease is extremely difficult for firefighters to meet, because they work in so many environments and conditions.
“Fighting fires is hard and dangerous work. In one study conducted by Harvard University, scientists measured air contaminant levels at more than 200 structural fires. Benzene, a chemical linked to many cancers, was found in 181 out of 197 samples from fire scenes.
“Multiple studies have shown that there are over 100 chemicals that can be found in smoke, showing just how difficult it can be for federal firefighters to prove an illness they contracted was caused by one specific chemical or incident.
“Most state, local, and municipal firefighters already benefit from something called a “presumptive illness” law. These laws link a particular occupation with certain diseases or conditions that have been connected to their work.
“California was the first state to pass a firefighters presumption illness law in 1982. Today, 49 out of 50 states have presumptive illness laws that cover state and local firefighters. Sadly, not one of these laws cover federal firefighters.
“This is the gap and inequity that I hope to fix with the Bipartisan Federal Firefighters Fairness Act, which is overwhelmingly supported by my colleagues with 95 cosponsors and supported by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).
“Madam Chair, I request to enter into the record a letter of support for H.R.2499 from the International Association of Fire Fighters.
“Last month, over a thousand firefighters put their lives on the line to battle the Alisal Fire in my district on the Central Coast of California. I am so thankful for the federal, state, and local firefighters who worked together to put out the blaze and keep our community safe. All of them performed the same job, but again a reminder, only federal firefighters experience a disparity in health benefits.
“It is not fair that federal firefighters are being denied access to benefits that their local counterparts receive, especially when they fight the same fires and expose themselves to the same risks.
“California experienced unprecedented wildfire seasons in 2020 and 2021, and scientists are projecting that wildfires will continue to increase in frequency and severity. Now more than ever, we need to do right by our federal fighters and pass this vital legislation.
“Our federal firefighters and their families cannot continue to sacrifice and put themselves in harm’s way to protect us all, only to be, only to be denied health care benefits simply because they cannot prove a work-related illness was linked to one chemical or incident. Firefighters of all types are heroes and deserve the same respect and benefits for the hard and necessary job they perform.
“It is high time to pass a presumptive illness law for our federal firefighters and not continue to treat them as second-class firefighters. We must push this measure across the finish line.
“Thank you again for the opportunity to speak on my legislation, H.R. 2499 – the Federal Firefighter Fairness Act. I yield back, Madam Chair.”