It takes a lot of gall to deny benefits to the widow of a man that died saving lives, yet that’s exactly what officials in Prescott, Arizona have done. Andrew Ashcraft, 29, was one of the 19 firefighters killed in the horrific and costly Yarnell, Arizona fire, which was the deadliest American wildfire in the past 80 years. In a move eerily reminiscent of the way America treats her war veterans, the city has now denied benefits to Juliann Ashcraft, his widow, and their four children. Their reasoning? He wasn’t a full-time employee. Those benefits include salary and a health plan.
This isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last, that disaster relief responders have had benefit denial attempts. The same thing happened with FEMA workers in November, as many cities will arbitrarily designate such jobs as wildland firefighting as “part-time” or seasonal, despite hours worked.
In this particular case, the city’s response has been both cruel and wrong. Think Progress reports on the city’s response and trend of benefits denial:
“I said to them, ‘My husband was a full-time employee. He went to work full-time for you,’” Ashcraft told CBS. She said that city officials responded, “Perhaps there was a communication issue in your marriage.”
Outside of the Ashcraft family, loopholes in federal and state employment laws can often prevent emergency responders from receiving the benefits they need. For instance, after Hurricane Sandy tore across the East Coast in November, the FEMA workers who helped facilitate the disaster relief efforts did not qualify for health benefits — despite the risky nature of their work — because they were classified as part-time, seasonal workers. After more than 110,000 people signed onto a petition asking the government to change that rule, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) agreed to revise its policy, allowing FEMA’s disaster relief employees to become eligible for permanent benefits.
Actually, the “communication issue” is more of a legal one. Despite Ashcraft stating her husband was working a 40-hour week at the time of his death, and CBS’ confirmation that he was, indeed, earning a full-time salary, there isn’t a clear definition of what constitutes full-time and what does not. The Fair Labor Standards Act does not provide an official definition, allowing things like this to be contested.
Whether or not there is a legal question may be something for the courts to decide, but the fact remains that even considering denial in an instance like this is morally reprehensible. In an official statement to CBS, Prescott pressed their point, saying they “fully complied with all of the laws and employment policies that direct survivor benefits.” Apparently they missed the memo on common sense and empathy.
Ashcraft isn’t the only one being denied benefits. Thirteen of the 19 killed in the blaze have been told they will not be receiving benefits from the city. Of the 13, Andrew Ashcraft was the only one working 40 hours a week for the entire year of 2013.
Watch the CBS video below:
Reposted from Occupy Democrats with permission.