SACRAMENTO, CA - Firefighter Mike Reddell proudly shows off his young family. But in the back of his mind, he worries about them ... he's fighting lymphoma for the second time, a blood cancer his doctor says he got in the line of duty.
"If I were to die after five years," said Reddell, "then there would be no death benefits for myself or my family."
Right now, for any local firefighter or law enforcement officer, or prison guard, who dies within five years of being diagnosed with a job-related illness, their survivors are eligible for death benefits worth at least $250,000.
A bi-partisan proposal to remove that five-year cap is one step away from reaching the governor's desk.
Supporters say with today's medical advances, public servants should not be penalized for living longer.
"It doesn't seem fair to them or their survivors that because they have the good fortune to live more than five years, that their survivors get nothing," said Assem. Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento.
Critics are calling the change a giveaway to powerful public employee unions, creating an open-ended liability for governments for decades. Cities and counties are ultimately the ones to pay for most of the extra benefits, which could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. It's conceivable an ex-firefighter in his 80s or 90s could die of cancer, heart ailments or other service-related conditions decades after retirement and local governments would be on the hook for death benefits ... even if they're laying off and closing stations.
"This is a benefit," said Assem. Chris Norby, R-Fullerton. "It's subject to employee/management negotiations. It's not something that should be bestowed by the state Legislature and forced on local governments ... cities and counties ... with absolutely no way to pay for it."
With so much bad publicity on public employee perks lately, the Senate is now considering changing the limit to nine years ... which firefighter Reddell feels is still inadequate.
"I feel I should be covered the rest of my life. This is not a disease I asked for," Reddell said.
Lawmakers have until the end of the month to get bills to the governor's desk.