A Hard Reminder About Why We Fight
Because risk to life and limb is so much a part of the job, firefighters don’t have to “imagine” the heartbreak felt by the families of the 19 Prescott Arizona “hotshot” firefighters who died this past June in a horrific wildland fire.
But after all the memorial ceremonies and the tributes had been paid, what happened next was hard … no, impossible to imagine.
The city of Prescott, which had at one point vowed to take care of the fallen, delivered the lowest of blows to the families of 13 of the 19 by denying them full survivor benefits. It seems these 13, many of whom were working full time hours, had been officially classified as “seasonal” employees.
They worked together. They trained together. They died together. But because a cheapskate city decided to put its agenda ahead of humanity, these 13 families were basically told, “sorry, you’re out of luck.”
Prescott officials changed their story a couple of times once word got out of this unfathomably callous decision. First, it was “hey, it’s out of our hands – the state says we can’t.” Then, it was “gee, we can’t afford it.”
Of course, it’s all BS. Whatever the state may say, the city was well within its rights to extend full survivor benefits to its employees. Even the state of Arizona called them out on this one, with the Legislature vowing to retroactively make the benefits available notwithstanding what the city decided.
As for the city’s financial position, at last report, they had $230 million available to fund a $173 million budget. As Los Angeles Times columnist Paul Whitefield noted, “Is it just me or does it appear the city could cough up a few bucks for some widows and their kids?”
I know it seems shocking, but this is nothing new for the firefighters of Prescott. According to my colleagues with the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, Prescott is one of the worst when it comes to how it treats its employees and, in particular, its firefighters.
The experience in Prescott is a heartbreaking but important reminder of how fortunate we are in California.
• In California, we don’t make a distinction between permanent and seasonal employees when it comes to survivor benefits: If you die on the job, your family is protected;
• In California, protection for our families doesn’t stop with just those who die in a fire, but is also there for those whose death comes from job-related illnesses;
• In California, firefighters and their families have recourse when a local agency tries to stiff them on Workers’
Comp or other survivor benefits;
• Unlike Arizona (a “right-to-work” state), California firefighters don’t have to beg for their benefits; we bargain for them.
The protections afforded firefighters and their families in California are, of course, not just handed to us. Though it’s not as brazen, the attitude on display in Prescott exists in our state and has existed for decades. It is why we work so hard in Sacramento to ensure that legislators are, and remain, pro-firefighter in deed as well as in word. It is why we work so hard collectively in the Capitol to solidify and enshrine protections for you and your families in state law, out of reach from the whim of a heartless city manager.
The horrifying events last June and the inconceivable actions of the city of Prescott break our hearts and stiffen our resolve. As firefighters and as union members, we have been and must remain, ever vigilant.