Las Vegas Sun

October 1, 2022

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Firefighters’ quest for a new perk was short-lived

Edward Finger

Edward Finger

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

Two weeks ago, two Clark County officials were at the Sawyer State Office Building waiting their turn to address state lawmakers.

Ed Finger, an assistant Clark County manager, wanted to gather more information about a bill proposed by the firefighters union to exempt certain public employees from the requirements for disability payments. Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who has made his assault on firefighter overtime and sick leave a part-time job over the past year, was less circumspect.

“I’m here because I can’t believe they are actually considering a bill that would give firefighters another benefit and, essentially, sidestep new rules we won to rein in sick-leave abuse,” Sisolak said. “It’s unbelievable.”

The bill, which was scheduled to be introduced Feb. 21 in the Assembly Commerce and Labor Committee, was a bellwether on the leverage firefighters and police unions have with the Democratic majorities who have long been their allies.

The committee is chaired by Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson, a county employee. Atkinson’s “boss” in the Legislature is Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, a North Las Vegas firefighter.

The bill would change state law to exempt firefighters, police officers, emergency medical workers and arson investigators from the requirement that they be incapacitated by cancer, lung disease or hepatitis for at least five days over a 20-day period to receive disability compensation.

The measure was being proposed at a time when Clark County was asking departments to identify ways to cut spending by 9 percent and the state was preparing to relieve the county of as much of its tax revenue as it could.

Another budget hit was the last thing many would have expected from the Legislature. And yet there it was.

Stunning to Sisolak was that the bill emerged weeks after an arbitrator granted Clark County new rights to fix potential abuse of the sick-leave system by county firefighters after seeing e-mail from firefighters asking for sick days months ahead of time.

“These aren’t the days, I hope, where they just get whatever they want,” Sisolak said.

Indeed, just two years ago, state lawmakers set aside objections from Clark County to approve a bill that expanded the types of cancers — melanoma, prostate, testicular and thyroid — for which firefighters must be tested at taxpayer expense.

The firefighter argument was that their jobs make them more susceptible to those cancers.

Clark County managers argued that no clear evidence connected firefighting and the cancers. In fact, one analysis showed firefighters suffered no higher risk of cancer than the general population.

Still, legislators approved the bill and stuck Clark County with the $500,000 annual cost for the tests.

This session brought a different outcome. At the last second, AB131 was pulled without a hearing. Atkinson gave no reason for pulling the bill.

Sisolak said it seemed to him that “it wasn’t going to be so easy to get something like that passed because firefighters have lost a ton of political influence.”

Bolstering this belief is another bill that would whittle away at the presumption that any heart or lung disease a veteran policeman or firefighter gets is caused by the job — and treatment gets paid by taxpayers, said Carole Vilardo, president of the Nevada Taxpayers Association. Introduced by rural Sen. Dean Rhoads, R-Tuscarora, the bill was brought up on behalf of Vilardo’s organization.

The bill still presumes certain diseases are job-related. But now, after a firefighter leaves the job, the time during which he or she has to contract the disease, and still maintain coverage, would be limited to five years for cancer, lung disease or heart disease and one year for hepatitis.

“That particular bill will be a good indicator about whether the Legislature is serious in their attempt to reform costs associated with firefighters,” said one lobbyist close to local governments.

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