If you’ve ever wondered how public employees obtain job benefits much more generous than your own, well, here’s how.
A bill working its way through the Legislature would automatically grant Workers Comp benefits to firefighters who contract cancer. The thinking here is that firefighters are exposed to smoke, which can cause cancer.
Cancer, for the purposes of this bill, is any cancer of the skin, nervous, lymphatic, digestive, hematological, urinary, skeletal, oral, breast, testicular, genitourinary, liver or prostate systems, or that results from heat, radiation of any known or suspected carcinogen — which pretty much covers the universe of possible causes.
The burden, according to the bill, would then be upon the municipality or Workers Comp system to prove that the cancer was not job-related, a practical impossibility.
Based on a similar provision in California, the Maine Municipal Association estimates the new law would double Maine’s Workers Comp liability for firefighter cancer, from $700,000 to $1,340,000 per year.
Most cancers develop as people age, and this bill originally had no age limit. An amendment has now set an upper limit of 70. So, even long after retiring, firefighters could receive Workers Comp for cancer.
The biggest problem with this bill is that it obliterates the line between documented workplace injury and personal illness. Workers compensation has traditionally insured one, and private health insurance the other. Under the proposal, it will be impossible to draw any sort of meaningful line.
Who would determine what chemicals a firefighter had been exposed to over his or her career?
Who would determine what role genetic predisposition played in a particular cancer?
How long would a firefighter have to have been exposed? According to the proposed law, a firefighter would only need be employed as a firefighter for five years to qualify. What’s more, the proposal would also cover volunteer firefighters who may only rarely fight fires.
Then there’s the issue of personal responsibility. Can the cancer of a firefighter who smokes cigarettes said to be caused by his job? How about a firefighter who goes on to work in another hazardous profession?
What is to stop the spread of this sort of provision to other forms of public service? Should highway workers who are exposed to sunlight and exhaust fumes get Workers Comp for cancer? Water department workers for chemicals?
How about other types of maladies, such as Parkinson’s disease?
In the end, however, this is another extension of benefits to public employees, while private workers are losing them.
It used to be said that public benefits were so generous because the pay was so poor. Today, however, in Maine most public jobs not only have much better benefits but higher pay than comparable jobs in the private sector.
If we want to close this gap between private and public sector employees, the Legislature can only do it by killing bills like this one.

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