To support federal firefighters who become ill after years in service, the Labor Department’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) has established a special claims processing unit.
Federal firefighters are at particularly high-risk for work-related illnesses and injuries, DOL wrote in a press release on April 20. But, those workers often struggle to receive compensation after filing claims with the OWCP.
Federal firefighters work across the country at a variety of government facilities, including military installations, federal research laboratories and veterans’ hospitals. Many of those situations present high risk for disease, DOL stated.
OWCP handles a multitude of federal workers claims, including 15,000 firefighters in federal service. Firefighters file approximately 2,600 compensation claims to OWCP annually. About 175 of those are for illnesses like cancer, heart disease and lung disease, DOL stated.
The National Federation of Federal Employees, a union that represents federal firefighters, said that long wait times and lots of paperwork make the claims process burdensome for those workers. An NFFE spokesperson told Federal News Network that firefighters often will not go through DOL’s claims process because of those issues.
“For firefighters, because of the time it takes for DOL to authorize treatment through OWCP, the employee is better off using private healthcare or paying out-of-pocket,” the NFFE spokesperson said.
Additionally, it’s difficult for federal firefighters to prove that an illness is connected their years in service, the NFFE spokesperson said. That often causes OWCP to deny coverage.
In response to those issues, NFFE, as well as the International Association of Fire Fighters, are collaborating with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and OWCP Director Christopher J. Godfrey on policy changes for firefighters’ compensation claims process.
“The policy changes we are making will help us improve our service to federal firefighters and assist them through the claims process,” Godfrey said in a press release.
By establishing a special claims unit for those workers to submit their compensation claims, OWCP hopes to streamline the process for those who need to file.
The unit will use specially trained staff to expedite the claims process. Specifically, OWCP will use a special indicator for claims that come from federal firefighters. The special claims unit will process the claim, then reassign it to a non-specialized examiner after reviewing the decision.
OWCP will also collaborate with other departments to update them on the procedural changes.
“The agency is also providing comprehensive training to the unit’s examiners on the impacts of the policy changes, and working with federal agencies including the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Homeland Security and Interior to explain the changes in policy and procedures,” DOL stated.
Under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA), DOL handles claims for all federal workers’ filings, including those for federal firefighters. That includes managing ongoing cases, paying medical expenses and compensation benefits to injured federal workers, as well as eventually helping those employees return to work when possible.
DOL said it pays special attention to high-risk jobs for processing claims, which includes federal firefighters.
“While all federal employees who contract an occupational disease related to their federal employment are entitled to FECA coverage, special case handling considerations should apply to those employees engaged in high-risk employment,” DOL stated in an announcement about federal firefighter claims processing.
To be considered high-risk, DOL said claimants must have worked in a federal firefighting position for a minimum of five years.
The new special claims unit at DOL dovetails the House’s Federal Firefighters Fairness Act that’s aiming to further support those workers. That legislation, which the House Education and Labor Committee advanced on March 16, would establish a baseline connection for several common types of illnesses to be classified as work-sustained.
Firefighters, who work at federal institutions, do not currently have that coverage, the committee stated.
“Workers’ compensation laws in 48 states, by contrast, provide firefighters with a presumption that certain diseases are work-related. However, no such law covers the approximately 15,000 firefighters employed by the federal government,” the committee wrote in a fact sheet.
The committee said that DOL faces challenges when using FECA to handle firefighters’ compensation claims.
“FECA is well designed to address traumatic injuries, but is poorly designed to provide benefits for occupational disease caused by exposure to toxic substances. Federal firefighters who have contracted cancers face difficulty proving illnesses are work-related because of the lack of data to prove the disease is linked to specific incidents or exposures,” the committee stated.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the committee’s chairman, said it’s difficult for federal firefighters to show the connection necessary to receive compensation.
“When federal firefighters apply for FECA benefits, they are faced with a steep burden of proof,” Scott said in a statement.
Several unions and federal organizations, like the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, support the legislation.
“Passing this bill would bring federal rules in line with the vast majority of states in recognizing the occupational danger placed on firefighters and solve an inequity placed on the brave men and women who choose this line of work,” NARFE National President Ken Thomas wrote in a letter to the committee’s chairman.
The NFFE additionally supported the bill. In a March 29 letter to the House committee, NFFE National President Randy Erwin said under the current law, firefighters’ claims to OWCP are often denied.
“Without presumptive benefits, firefighters must undergo a lengthy administrative process from the OWCP to receive medical care, salary and health insurance benefits,” Erwin wrote in the letter.
The NFFE stated in a press release that the legislation would allow federal firefighters who work for at least five years more comprehensive coverage of diseases that come from on-the-job activities.
“If the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act is passed, it will lower the evidentiary burden and allow for more comprehensive coverage for OWCP claims that involve occupational illnesses,” an NFFE spokesperson said.
The Senate has a companion bill for the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act, which has been referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
The legislation complements DOL’s establishment of the special claims unit. The bill would make it mandatory for OWCP to regularly monitor and update its list of medical conditions that are covered in the claims process.
NFFE said it hopes to continue working closely with DOL to support federal firefighters, especially as the dangers grow as a result of longer and more severe fire seasons.
“We hope to expand our relationship with DOL to reform the federal firefighting workforce, which is in dire need of systemic transformation as wildfires are exacerbated by climate change,” an NFFE spokesperson said.