Thursday, November 17, 2005

Opposition scores win for firefighters, despite Liberal qualms

VICTORIA - It's a brave or foolhardy politician who gets into a fight with volunteer firefighters.
So even though rushing to extend special WCB status to volunteer firefighters isn't particularly sound public policy, the Liberal government jumped aboard the bright red bandwagon this week,
On one level, it's democracy in action. The NDP saw what they considered a weakness in a government bill making it easier for firefighters to get WCB compensation if they get cancer. Only full-time firefighters were to get the break. Part-timers, and more importantly volunteers, were left out.
Labour Minister Mike de Jong defended the decision earlier this month. There just isn't evidence that volunteer firefighters face the same exposure to harmful substances. Like other workers, they would continue to have to prove to the WCB that their cancer had been caused by fighting fires.
Liberal backbenchers supported the exclusion. Volunteers are important, said Kevin Krueger, and should get protection. But not now.
But New Democrats, led by labour critic Chuck Pulchmayr, weren't so hesitant, and introduced an amendment extending the special status to volunteers and part-timers.
And the squeeze was on. Worries about a lack of scientific evidence vanished, swept away by the tides of political pressure.
De Jong changed his mind, the NDP withdrew its amendment - governments hate accepting opposition ideas - and the Liberals introduced their own version to extend the special status to all firefighters.
Cheers all round and a speedy passage for the new law. What was unsound three weeks ago will now be law.
The Liberals opened the door to all this with a pre-election promise to give full-time firefighters special status with the Workers' Compensation Board.
If you're employed and get sick, you are only compensated if you can prove that your work caused the illness. That can be long, costly and difficult; firefighters lost two out of every three appeals over the years.
The Liberals' legislation gives them special status. For firefighters suffering from seven kinds of cancer, the WCB will be ordered to assume that their illness was work-related. The board will have to prove that the disease was caused by some other factor, or pay up.
The WCB legislation already attempts to streamline the process for some common illnesses, with a schedule of ailments and causes. If you work in a mine and are exposed to silica dust, the WCB has to prove silicosis wasn't caused by your work.
Firefighters get a different, better deal. They continue to benefit from the status even if they have left the job or retired.
The notion of extending special privileges to one occupational group is troubling. If the WCB system isn't working, or is unfair, it should be fixed for all employees.
But full-time firefighters waged an effective lobby, producing scientific studies to show that they did suffer from much higher rates of cancer.
And it helped hugely that firefighters are seen as good guys, making the move a political winner for the Campbell government. The promise was enough to win a rare union endorsement for the Liberals, and the government launched its legislation with a big reception for about 50 firefighters from around the province.
Those same political factors led to the quick reversal on volunteers and part-timers, who make up about two-thirds of the 15,000 firefighters in the province.
The part-timers and volunteers have a case. In many rural communities volunteers - while still invaluable - face limited exposure to toxins. But in small cities they work side by side with full-time firefighters, and face the same exposure. It's complex to sort out - only two provinces have so far extended special status to part-time firefighters. De Jong was likely right to delay a decision.
But politics won out, with the biggest factor the strength of the opposition. In the last legislature, the bill would have sailed through unchanged.
This time the political pressure was enough to outweigh the government's view that there just wasn't enough evidence to extend special status to 11,000 firefighters.
Footnote: The provisions covering full-time firefighters carry some serious restrictions. Kidney cancer is only automatically considered work-related, for example, if the firefighter has been on the job for 20 years. The bill will allow the government to come up with different standards for volunteers and part-timers.

1 comment:

Shane said...

Normally I would be against stuff like this - especially anything proposed by the NDP. However, I have a mountain of respect for firefighters, even volunteer ones. Many communities are served by volunteers as opposed to paid firefighters, and if they get no remuneration for laying their lives on the line for other people's property, then they should get the benefit of the doubt for a couple WCB claims.