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Wednesday, Oct 23 2013 11:00 PM

WILLIAM TODD BERRY: Brown: Public safety workers still must die sooner than later

Gov. Jerry Brown's veto of Assembly Bill 1373 perpetuates a system that punishes workers for not dying soon enough.

The bill would have updated qualifying requirements for the widows and children of active-duty law enforcement officers and fire fighters to receive death benefits.

It is the second year in a row that Brown has vetoed a proposed extension of the "death deadline." As he did last year, Brown claimed he needs more information before he can agree to help fallen heroes' families.

In his veto message last year, Brown said there was "little more than anecdotal evidence" available to determine how to balance "serious fiscal constraints faced at all levels of government against our shared priority to adequately and fairly compensate the families of those public safety heroes who succumb to work-related injuries and disease."

For those who work in public safety careers and those who love the men and women who put their lives on the line every day for us, there is no need for "more information." We already know there is a link between a firefighter's exposure to toxins and cancer. We can recite the names of those who have died from work-related diseases.

Brown will get the information he says he needs. It will come in the form of more officers dying and more families left with mounting bills, rather that compassionate help and expressions of appreciation.

AB 1373, authored by Assembly Speaker John A. Perez, D-Los Angeles, proposed to extend the time limits for survivors' claims to 480 weeks from the present 240 weeks in cases involving cancer, tuberculosis or blood-borne infectious diseases.

The bill proposed to update a 100-year-old standard for allocating death benefits to officers' families. Under the current system, if a public safety officer becomes ill and dies within 240 weeks, or just under five years, the officer's survivors are eligible to receive a $300,000 lump-sum death benefit. One hundred years ago -- or even 10 years ago, for that matter -- it would be unlikely for the officer to live 240 weeks after receiving a "death sentence" diagnosis of cancer. But thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, some people are living long beyond the 240-week "death deadline." A 480-week limit, which is about nine years, is much more practical.

And with public safety personnel facing exposure to increasingly potent toxins and carcinogens, medical time-bomb diseases can be ticking, but unnoticed, within bodies for years before being detected.

AB 1373 would have only applied to law enforcement officers and firefighters who were diagnosed while serving actively. Retirees would not have qualified.

Sadly, even with medical advances, most public safety employees who are stricken by work-related illnesses today do not live to see the 240-week deadline, let alone the proposed 480-week limit.

The claims by such organizations as the California State Association of Counties and the League of California Cities that extending the "death deadline" would cost local governments millions of dollars are simply untrue. Few affected law enforcement officers and firefighters would live to 480 weeks; claims would be rare; and the fiscal impact slight. Presently, if a law enforcement officer or firefighter has the "good sense" to die within 240 weeks of a diagnosis of cancer, tuberculosis or blood-borne infections caused by an on-the-job incident, his or her spouse and children are paid a lump sum of money to help adjust to the loss of the family's bread winner.If he, or she, lives to week 241, the family is out of luck.

Lou Paulson, president of the California Professional Firefighters, hit the nail on the head when he wrote in the Sacramento Bee earlier this year that the "death deadline" should be extended because families "shouldn't be punished because their loved one didn't die fast enough."

As with many debates over compensating injured workers, the debate over AB 1373 pandered to those who want to believe workers are "milking" some lucrative benefits system.

In reality, the system does not pay lucrative benefits; and those benefits that are provided are hard to obtain and much deserved.

William Todd Berry is a Bakersfield attorney who specializes in representing injured workers. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words.

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