Right now, unprecedented wildfires are blazing across Colorado and much of the United States. But thousands of federal firefighters who are working tirelessly to control the blazes do not have health insurance.
Included in that group of uninsured firefighters is 27-year-old John Lauer, a member of the elite “hotshot” crew, a team of America’s most skilled federal fighters who are deployed to the nation’s most ferocious fires. Since 2006 he has battled fires in Utah, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, California, South Dakota, Nebraska and Minnesota: “Pretty much every state west of the Mississippi,” as he puts it, including one summer in Alaska.
Of all American jobs where one needs health insurance, firefighting surely ranks near the top. Firefighters work grueling two-week shifts putting in 18 hour days under deadly conditions. Many develop respiratory problems from smoke inhalation.
But many federal firefighters are not full time employees, working perhaps only six months out of the year (although as Lauer points out, they can often complete a full year’s worth of work hours with the double shifts). Under federal regulation, temporary employees of the Forest Service are not eligible for workers compensation, health care or other benefits.
“A lot of them are not making a lot,” says Bill Dougan, president of the National Federal of Federal Employees. “The only way they can afford insurance is if they have a spouse that might be able to get coverage under an employer. In some places that’s not an option.” Bill’s organization represents all temporary federal firefighters in the U.S. (about 15,000 to 20,000 workers).
The Affordable Care Act could help many of these workers. This legislation would guarantee access to health coverage for a firefighter who, for instance, could suffer from bronchitis. Many of these workers earn rather low salaries, about $25,000 to $35,000 per year, meaning they’d be eligible for subsidies. If the law had been overturned by the Supreme Court, however, firefighters would have remained in the same situation: Working a dangerous job and unable to afford health insurance.
Many have considered purchasing an individual health plan but find these too expensive. In Colorado, for example. annual premiums for an individual policy are around $2,777.
Many firefighters battling the Colorado wildfires have not had good luck as uninsured workers. One member of the Hotshots crew recently had a premature baby, and is now saddled with $70,000 in outstanding medical bills. Another firefighter is facing $40,000 for some specialized tests on his newborn.
“It’s one of the things all temporary firefighters talk about,” Lauer says of the lack of health coverage up to this point. “As soon as you get out there, you become well aware there are no benefits. But you just keep going about your job, and doing what you’re being paid to do.”
If you have a work injury or occupational illness, the workers compensation lawyers of Emery Reddy can help you through the L&I claim process and get you the maximum benefits allowed under Washington law. Many workers also turn to us for experience legal representation after a denied L&I claim or after receiving instructions from the Department of Labor and Industries to schedule an Independent Medical Examination. Finally, we have years of experience defending the rights of those injured by a third party. Call an L&I Attorney today for a free consultation.