Don’t make COVID even tougher on firefighters

Contracting the virus should qualify as an injury on duty

FIREFIGHTERS CONTINUE to be on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic every single day. As full-time, career, union firefighters, we are regularly exposed to the coronavirus while responding to emergency calls in our capacity as firefighters and firefighter EMT-paramedics. Just last week, 78 Massachusetts firefighters tested positive for the coronavirus. The Attleboro Fire Department, where I proudly serve as a firefighter and the president of Attleboro Firefighters Local 848, has seen 21 firefighters and two dispatchers contract the virus and numerous others quarantined due to potential exposure.

These were healthy firefighters without any preexisting medical conditions. Despite what some irresponsible voices say about the severity of the illness, three of them were hospitalized and still suffer potential long-term health problems. Their experience trying to get injured-on-duty status, also known as IOD 111F protection, has been a case study for why the Legislature needs to make COVID-19 an injury that presumptively qualifies a first responder for the protection.

Typically, if our job places us at high risk for an illness, contracting it presumptively qualifies a firefighter for the injured-on-duty status, a benefit we negotiated during the collective bargaining process. It means the firefighter receives his or her salary while unable to work – along with medical coverage from the city. If, tragically, a firefighter dies from being injured on duty, his or her spouse is entitled to survivor’s benefits.

Since the coronavirus only emerged this year, no fire department has specifically included COVID-19 on its list of presumptive illnesses. Instead, departments have been following the definition of “presumptive” for communicable disease, occupational cancer, and heart-lung disease, to name a few.

In a perfect world, municipal leaders would simply grant injured-on-duty status to firefighters who contract the coronavirus. In Attleboro, however, Mayor Paul Heroux tried to block injured-on-duty status for firefighters battling COVID-19. The first time the fire chief granted presumptive injured-on-duty status, Heroux took away his ability to make that decision, vesting it in the mayor’s office instead.  Going further, he recently took away previously approved injured-on-duty payments from a member hospitalized for COVID-19.

In one case, Heroux refused to grant injured-on-duty status to a firefighter who was hospitalized because of double-lung pneumonia and COVID-related symptoms, demanding we prove the firefighter was infected on the job through contact tracing. The deficiencies in our contact tracing system make this impossible.

With presumptive language either in a contract or enshrined in state law, the burden shifts; the employer is required to prove that the firefighter’s working conditions were not a significant contributing factor to the injury.  Hence the word “presumptive.”  Heroux refused to meet with us to discuss the situation, while granting interviews to a number of news outlets. In typical political fashion, Heroux only backed down and granted injured-on-duty status for some, but not all, firefighters, after intense public pressure.

This was not the first time Heroux tried to make life harder for Attleboro firefighters as we help battle the virus while also fulfilling our obligation to protect and serve. During the pandemic, we have worked longer hours, and some firefighters with high-risk family members have had to sleep in their basement or on a friend’s couch.

Heroux has given media interviews about the coronavirus but has banned news crews from coming to the firehouse to interview first responders actually fighting the pandemic. When a barber volunteered to cut hair at the fire house one afternoon, Heroux forbade it. When the wife of a firefighter criticized the mayor on social media, he messaged her to say she should be more appreciative because he is her husband’s boss. The entire time he was behaving like this, Heroux was working remotely from home, safe from the virus, while we were regularly exposed to COVID-19.

Throughout my career as a union leader, I defended politicians to my friends and relatives. I always said that most people go into public life to give back and make a difference in their communities. Unfortunately, Heroux is the kind of leader that turns people into cynics. He has constantly tried to score political points and get news coverage at the expense of Attleboro’s firefighters.

That’s not just wrong, it’s the kind of behavior that discourages good men and women from joining the department. We already lose firefighters to neighboring communities because we offer some of the lowest salaries in the region. Having a hostile mayor who is combative with the department as it deals with a once-in-a-century pandemic has brought morale to an all-time low.

While there is no legislative solution for a bad mayor, Beacon Hill can fix the specific problem of presumptive injured-on-duty status for firefighters who contract the coronavirus. There are two bills, HB2261 and SB1485, which would create a statewide standard on this important issue. These bills are necessary because without a clear infectious disease presumptive injury understanding, first responders may be wrongly denied the benefits to which they are entitled.

Meet the Author

Paul Jacques

President, Attleboro Firefighters Local 848
During this pandemic, there have been public safety personnel who died of COVID-19 without being on injured-on-duty status, resulting in their family not receiving survivor benefits. The Legislature should pass this long overdue legislation and make sure that never happens again.

Paul Jacques is the president of Attleboro Firefighters Local 848.