A proposed bill in Trenton has towns around the state passing resolutions against it, fearing their workers compensation liabilities and costs could skyrocket.
The proposal, the “Thomas P. Canzanella Twenty First Century First Responders Protection Act,” would make it easier for police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians to claim workers compensation coverage by assuming many medical problems that develop later in life were presumably because of their employment.
The medical problems covered include death and disability from chemical and biological attacks and radioactive materials encountered on the job, as well as psychological trauma caused by terrorist attacks or catastrophic emergencies. These problems now have to be proved to have been caused by ones employment, before they can be covered by worker’s compensation.
The bill is named for a Canzanella, a Hackensack Fire Department deputy chief who advocated for better conditions for public safety workers before his 2007 death.
In December, Dominick Marino, the president of the 3,000-member Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey, told lawmakers in a legislative committee that other states that have passed similar bills have seen about one person a year additionally covered.
“Since 9/11, the possibility of responding to a catastrophic emergency, an epidemic a terrorist attack ... makes this legislation more important today,” Marino added.
George Borek, the association’s first vice president, added, “This is not a loophole to give someone their free ride. We’re not asking that. But, you know, there’s incidents that occur. We just want to make sure that we’re protected. We don’t want to use it. We hope we never have use it. But we want and just know that if it’s there, if something happens, that the first responders in this state are protected.”
Rick Whelan, past state president of the state Fraternal Order of Police, concurred with his fire-fighting colleagues.
The bill cleared the Assembly Labor Committee 7-1, with one abstention. Assemblyman Nelson Albano, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, was one of the yes votes on the committee. The bill now awaits a full General Assembly vote. A companion bill is stalled in the Senate Labor committee.
But since that vote, towns have balked, saying the open-ended nature of the proposal could leave municipalities on the hook for large and unknowable liabilities.
“Clearly, as a society we must take care of our first responders. They are the first line of defense for our citizens in the face of industrial accidents, environmental incidents, terrorist attacks, and much more,” said Lori Buckelew, legislative analyst for the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. “However, we must also balance our responsibility to our public safety workers with our responsibility to the taxpaying public at large,” saying the bill would increase municipal costs, borne by local taxpayers.
So far, the league said it received 20 resolutions around the state opposing the bill. Locally, these towns include Wildwood Crest and Avalon in Cape May County and Mullica, Egg Harbor and Hamilton Townships in Atlantic County.
In Egg Harbor Township, Township Manager Peter Miller said the bill “really is a blank check,” adding “There is no controls over it” and describing it as a “Pandora’s box” before the township committee backed the resolution opposing the bill at its Feb. 13 meeting.
Hamilton Township passed a similar resolution at its Feb. 19 meeting.
Roger Silva, the deputy mayor, said later the town was concerned about the costs, adding “A lot of municipalities are going to find themselves on the short end.”
“At what point do you say, ‘how long will you hold a municipal responsible for something?’” Silva asked. “It has to stop somewhere.”
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