Firefighters optimistic bills will pass Virginia General Assembly

Posted at 11:36 AM, Feb 06, 2020

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - For years, firefighters have been calling on the General Assembly to expand the types of cancers covered under workers' compensation. Now, it appears lawmakers have gotten the message.

Firefighters have been able to get workers' compensation if they develop seven types of cancer, but for years, they've been advocating to add three types to the list. This week, the House of Delegates and Senate passed versions of bills that expand the types of cancer to be covered under workers' comp to include colon, brain and testicular cancer.

"Our members who contract cancer will no longer be faced with the impossible task of pinpointing which incident causes their disease to develop," the Virginia Professional Firefighters said in a statement. "Firefighters will now be able to receive life-saving treatment with assistance from workers' compensation benefits with the goal of returning to work."

Max Gonano is the President of the Virginia Beach Professional Firefighters Union and is a firefighter himself.

"While it's great, I think it's a little late. I have several members, and every union does. Every city has members who have missed out on this, unfortunately," Gonano said.

It's one of several bills firefighters are hopeful will pass this year. Another would give more bargaining power to public employees in unions when negotiating contracts, like the Virginia Beach Professional Firefighters.

"Now, instead of the deals being made by politicians in the dark, the deals are all out in the open. You have representatives from both sides, and they come together and figure out what needs to be done in terms of a contract," Gonano explained.

But critics argue that bill would give unions barganing power over people not in the unions. That bill is still working its way through the State Capitol.

The bill would help clear up what types of events can be claimed as causing post-traumatic stress disorder and would help first responders figure out if they have it.

"What this would help the members with is to protect their job. Number one, nobody wants to go out and get exposed to a gruesome scene and not come back to work. Everybody wants to come back to work."

Final passage is still needed following crossover day next week. Gov. Ralph Northam also would still have to sign the final bill into law.

Related: Newport News firefighter’s battle with cancer and the city he works for

Last year, lawmakers directed the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to study the issue in order to make sure local and state funds are used properly. In December, JLARC came back with a series of recommendations, including adding types of cancers that qualify for workers' compensation.

In addition, the Virginia Professional Firefighters group wants to see the General Assembly pass a bill that would allow public employees to take part in collective bargaining. Another bill they're advocating for would allow for workers' compensation if a firefighter or law enforcement officer suffers from PTSD.