NJ Senate to vote on expanding workers’ comp for first responders
A bill a dozen years in the making that would change the way first responders’ illnesses are covered under workers' compensation is expected to be approved Thursday by the state Senate.
First responders can already file workers’ comp claims for illnesses. But under the bill, S716, it would be presumed that their illness resulted from their job unless municipalities can prove otherwise, said Dominick Marino, president of the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey.
“We hope we never have to use this piece of legislation. That was our hope. That is our hope,” Marino said. “But in the event some things do happen, giving that member and that family piece of mind goes a long way.”
David Grubb, executive director of the Municipal Excess Liability Joint Insurance Fund, predicts it’ll be used more than lawmakers think – perhaps costing cities $66 million a year for paid firefighters, and much more and including other towns if volunteer firefighters file claims.
Grubb said he developed that estimate by extrapolating to New Jersey the rate at which paid firefighters use a similar program in Los Angeles.
“There is almost no insurance that is involved in this,” said Grubb, who said New Jersey cities and towns are generally self-insured in pools. “This will be a straight cost to the municipalities, and particularly to the urban municipalities.”
Grubb said a little over 40 percent of firefighters develop cancer and that coverage should limited to those shown to occur more frequently for firefighters than the public at large.
In 1995, Charles Cuccia was one of five firefighters inside the Napp Technologies chemical plant in Lodi after an explosion. He said one has died of cancer and two are being treated, so he wants a presumption that such illnesses are covered.
But Cuccia has also been a town administrator and worries about unintended financial consequences, and he suggests that the coverage be paid for through a separate, special fund.
“Most of the cost will occur with the career departments, and as you know those are the larger cities who have budgetary problems at this point in time,” Cuccia said.
Workers' compensation attorney Richard Marcolus said the bill has the controls sought by towns and insurers, such as a two-year statute of limitations from the date someone knows they’re sick and requiring that firefighters put in seven years on the job before qualifying.
“Somebody’s who’s on the job one day is not covered under this bill,” Marcolus said. “Certain emergency personnel, if you’re not involved in some type of tragic, terroristic situation, you’re not covered under the bill.”
Marcolus said the change could cost $9 million to $10 million a year, far less than insurers and towns claim.
The bill’s Assembly counterpart, A1741, remains in the Assembly Labor Committee.