LYNN — Elected officials and the city’s firefighters gathered at the Broadway Fire Station on Tuesday afternoon as Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a bill that creates a paid leave system for firefighters suffering from work-related cancers.
The bill, “an act relative to disability benefits,” was championed by State Rep. Daniel Cahill (D-Lynn) and allows firefighters unable to work due to certain forms of cancer to leave with full pay while they receive treatment.
The legislation designates certain cancers sustained in the line of duty as a work-related injury and extends those protections to female cancers such as breast or reproductive cancers, which will be covered equally.
“As firefighters, we generally shun attention,” said Edward Kelly, general secretary-treasurer of the International Association of Fire Fighters. “We don’t really seek a thank you for what we do.
“We accept the sacrifice of our job as part of our calling, but when we get diagnosed with cancer, we run out of sick leave and we go off the payroll and we lose our health care. That is just wrong. That’s not a thank you for our sacrifice. That’s a penalty for our sacrifice, a penalty against our families.”
On a sweltering day, Baker said he was sweating through his suit. He said if someone multiplied that by 10, they would probably get what it feels like for the men and women who put on their gear and enter a burning building where the temperature is a lot hotter than it was on Tuesday. To compound that, he said they’re also worrying about whether the roof and walls around them will collapse.
“It’s dangerous work,” Baker said. “There’s plenty of documented evidence at this point that cancer is a very real hazard of the job and we ought to make sure we’re doing what we need to do to ensure that people who end up in that situation get the support that they need from us to fight that fight.”
Richard MacKinnon, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, said the bill was motivated by and named after Plymouth firefighter Tony Colarusso, who was diagnosed with esophageal cancer at 38 years old and ran out of sick time while battling the disease.
MacKinnon said Colarusso and his family were left without a paycheck and without health insurance for 93 days. He died a year after being diagnosed on Oct. 20, 2015, at the age of 39. Colarusso’s parents and brother were in attendance on Tuesday.
“We made it our mission that no firefighter or their family should have to worry about losing a paycheck or health insurance when they need it most,” MacKinnon said. “From this point further, this bill will be known as the Tony Colarusso Law, so that no firefighter will have to endure what your son went through.”
Cahill said before the legislation, which is the first in the nation, firefighters would exhaust all their sick time if they were battling work-related cancers. In addition, when they went into remission and then had follow-up medical appointments, they would then be out of sick time and would have to use personal days or take unpaid time off, or might not choose to go at all, which could lead to cancer coming back.
“Obviously, I was incredibly honored to have the bill signing here in Lynn for legislation that was a priority of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts,” Cahill said. “In working collaboratively with House leadership, the Senate and the governor, we were able to pass meaningful legislation that directly impacts the lives of our friends, family and neighbors who are firefighters.”
Mayor Thomas M. McGee said the passage of the bill allows “for paid leave to firefighters who go out on disability related to cancers presumed to be attained in the line of duty,” and thanked Cahill, the Senate and House leadership and the governor for making the bill possible.
In Massachusetts, more than 300 active firefighters have been diagnosed with cancer in the last two years. Of these firefighters, 107 were able to return to work, 99 were forced to retire, and 29 succumbed to their illness.
A multi-year Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that firefighters are 9 percent more likely to be diagnosed with cancer and 14 percent more likely to die of cancer than the general public, according to a press release.
“Thank you to all our firefighters,” said Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo. “Thank you for all that you do to keep our communities, our homes and our families safe. This law is for you, you who are on the front lines, you who run towards fires instead of running away. And when you are sick because of the work that you do, we should make sure that we get the care that each of you deserve in your recovery.”