Debate flares over death benefit for public servants


Firefighter Mike Reddell proudly showed us photos of his young family. However, in the back of his mind, he worries about them because he's fighting lymphoma for the second time -- a blood cancer his doctor says he got in the line of duty.

"If I was to die after five years, then there would be no death benefit for myself or my family," said Reddell.

Right now, for any local firefighter or law enforcement officer, or prison guard, who dies within five years of being diagnosed with a job-related illness, their survivors are eligible for death benefits worth at least $250,000. A bi-partisan proposal to remove that five-year cap is one step away from reaching the governor's desk. Supporters say with today's medical advances, public servants should not be penalized for living longer.

"It doesn't seem fair to them or to their survivors that because they have the good fortune to live more than five years, that their survivors get nothing," said Assm. Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento.

Critics are calling the change a giveaway to powerful public employee unions, creating an open-ended liability for governments for decades.

Cities and counties are ultimately the ones to pay for most of the extra benefits, which could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. It's conceivable an ex-firefighter in his 80's or 90's could die of cancer, heart ailments or other service-related conditions decades after retirement and local governments would be on the hook for death benefits, even if they're laying off and closing stations.

"This is a benefit and it's subject to employee/management negotiations. It's not something that should be bestowed by the state legislature and forced on local governments -- cities and counties -- with absolutely no way to pay for it," said Assm. Chris Norby, R-Fullerton.

With so much bad publicity on public employee perks lately, the Senate is now considering changing the limit to nine years, which Reddell feels is still inadequate.

"I feel I should be covered the rest of my life. This is not a disease I asked for," said Reddell.

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