The widow of one of the firefighters killed by Arizona's wildfire a few weeks ago is battling the city government of Prescott, Arizona to receive the same benefits the families of other fallen firefighters received. However, the city government has callously denied this request, claiming her husband was a seasonal employee even though he was working full-time. Because the Fair Labor Standards Act does not define part-time versus full-time, employers can exploit this loophole to avoid giving workers their earned due. Legislation should be immediately passed to assure benefits to the families of public safety employees slain in the line of duty.
Juliann Ashcraft's husband, Andrew, was one of the members of the elite Granite Mountain HotShots Crew who were recognized by Vice President Joe Biden as heroes after perishing on June 30 while fighting the Yarnell Hill fire. While the families of some of the 18 fallen firefighters received a lump-sum life insurance payment, health benefits, and monthly lifetime survivor benefits, Julian Ashcraft will only receive a one-time payment of $328,613 and a few smaller financial benefits. CBS confirmed that Andrew Ashcraft was receiving a full-time salary, yet because of the murky distinction between full-time and part-time, the city can deny the family benefits.
Ashcraft, a mother of four, has hired a lawyer and is considering taking legal action against the city alongside the families of the other 13 part-time slain firefighters' families who were denied benefits. In its defense, the city claims that it cannot posthumously change a worker's status from part-time to full-time so that the family can receive benefits. Juliann Ashcraft quit her job as a paralegal two months ago so she could spend time taking care of her children, the youngest of which is 18 months old.
Because her husband died while fighting a fire, she was eligible for a one-time payment through the Public Safety Officers Benefits Act. However, other families have been even less fortunate. Although in 2003 Congress passed the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act to provide benefits to the families of public safety officials who died of a stroke or heart attack within 24 hours of responding to an emergency, an internal review had found the Department of Justice had been incredibly slow in responding to these families' needs. Some families are still waiting on appeals to receive any benefits whatsoever.
FEMA workers during Hurricane Sandy were also denied health benefits because their work was considered seasonal. However, after public outcry, the Office of Personnel Management agreed to provide permanent benefits to disaster relief employees.
Arizona House Speaker Andrew Tobin is already working a bill that would consider all emergency workers who die on state land to be full-time. If this bill passes, Juliann Ashcraft could finally mourn for her husband in peace and not worry about having to pay for a lawyer. Overall, it's a travesty that the family of any emergency responder would have to go through these pains after just losing a loved one. It's clear that the work their spouses may do is risky and the government has no place exploiting loopholes to avoid giving families their fair share.