Colchester, Vermont - July 5, 2011
Jason Stech is getting pretty good at zipping around the fire station on crutches. A month ago he was injured on the job. He expected recovery to be tough, but the legal battle caught him off guard.
"I think we were all under the impression you get hurt and you're taken care of, your family's taken care of," Stech said.
This volunteer firefighter from Colchester is learning the hard way that there's a loophole standing between him and his workers' compensation benefit.
"I guess if you are just helping out around our station you're not covered. I don't think that's right," Stech said.
In June, Stech fell from a ladder while fixing insulation at the station. He fractured his ankle, broke his foot and shattered his heel. His injuries require surgery that will keep him from his paying job for about four months. Now the fire company's insurer is using Vermont law to deny his workers' comp claim.
"I think it's very unfair," Stech said. "We all go out in the middle of the night to put our lives on the lines in some cases."
But not in this case, says American Zurich Insurance Company. It based its denial on a legal issue concerning the legislative intent of "line of duty." The statute says it's when a firefighter is responding to a fire, a drill or a test, participating in a parade or fundraising. Since Stech wasn't doing any of those activities he's ineligible for coverage. But lawmakers argue the insurance company is twisting their intentions.
"Over the history of the workers' compensation program we have meant it to be read expansively and remedially to benefit the injured worker," said Sen. Vince Illuzzi, R-Essex-Orleans counties.
More than 90 percent of the state's fire departments are volunteer. And now some worry that this loophole, sends the wrong message.
"I think that knowing some things are not covered is going to scare a lot of people away from volunteering and we already have a huge problem in the state of Vermont getting volunteers," said John Meyers, the president of the Colchester Center Volunteer Fire Company.
As for Stech, he says he's not going to let this keep him from serving his community, but it will change how much he's willing to take on.
"I might have thought twice about signing up to come help out," he said. "And I'd probably be more cautious about what I did or what I volunteered to do."
Lawmakers say over the last several years they've actually expanded worker compensation coverage for firefighters, creating clauses for heart attacks and cancers caused by the job. But it's the smaller issues that need clarifying and Jason Stech says he's made it his mission; hiring an attorney and appealing the decision.
Jennifer Reading - WCAX News