The Maine Public Broadcasting Network
Listen Live
Classical 24
Maine Bill Would Expand Workers' Comp for First Responders
05/28/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

When does the work day officially start? When you first sit at your desk? When you pull in to the office parking lot? How about as you're getting ready at home? For first responders, the answer has important implications, because it dicates when they can claim workers' compensation in case of injury. Today, a bill that expands workers' comp coverage for first responders won initial approval in the House. But its fate is uncertain in the Senate, as opponents argue that the measure is unfair to municipal employers and employees. Patty Wight reports.

Related Media
Maine Bill Would Expand Workers' Comp for First Re Listen

Many of us likely wouldn't count getting ready at home as an official part of our work day. But the situation for first responders, says Jeff Maker of the Maine State Federation of Firefighters, is different.

"With a firefighter, when the tone goes off in the middle of the night, our contention is we're on the clock," Maker says. "Because we wouldn't be putting our warm feet on the cold bedroom floor at 2:30 in the morning, at 25 below zero outdoors to get dressed and go out unless there's something - unless something told us to."

Right now, first responders can only claim workers' comp once they're traveling on a public road to an emergency. The bill approved by the House expands workers' comp coverage to start the moment a first responder receives a call. The bill's origin dates back to previous incidents when first responders injured themselves while leaving their homes as they answered those calls.

That's what happened to paramedic Kerry Sousa Pomelow, back in 2004, when she stepped out her front door in Canaan to respond to an emergency during an ice storm.

"Kids were home from school, wasn't intending to go out anywhere," she says. "Late afternoon, early evening, couple car accidents came in in our town. The tones went out. I went to leave to go to one of the accidents, and fell on my driveway and broke my leg."

Pomelow says she was out of work for about six months and had to pay a $10,000 hospital bill because workers' comp didn't cover her injury. Pomelow says it took a couple of years to get back on track financially.

"You know, I sold my car because I couldn't afford the car payments," she says. "You end up havign to re-start a lot of things that you had already built up. There were certainly no vacations that year, there was no extra."

These accidents don't happen often. Jeff Maker of the Maine Federation of Firefighters estimates there's been a half-dozen contentious workers' comp cases for first responders in the past decade.

Still, during a debate on the House floor Tuesday, independent Rep. James Campbell argued that no first responder should suffer financial hardship as a result of responding to an emergency situation, and urged lawmakers to pass the bill that expands workers' comp.

"They will have something to fall back on," he said. "As it is now, they put their own regular job in jeopardy, and their family's life in jeopardy, to take care of their family."

But Republican Rep. Amy Volk says expanding workers' comp coverage into people's homes unfairly burdens municipalities.

"While it sounds good to say that we would like to be able to cover these heroic people, municipalities have no control over private things that happen on other people's private property," she said.

Eric Conrad, a spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, agrees. He says it's also unreasonable to create a special set of rules for certain municipal employees.

"They should be treated like other municipal employees," he says, "and that is that you get up in the morning and you take a shower, and if you fall or slip - if you're a clerk or a police chief or you're a snow plow operator, the insurance claim doesn't start there: It starts when you get on the highway and you head to work."

But paramedic Kerry Pomeleau says other municipal employees have predicatable schedules. As a paramedic, she says, she's on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and the risk that comes with that responsbility should be covered - from the moment the call to respond comes in.

The bill now faces a vote in the Senate.


Become a Fan of the NEW MPBNNews Facebook page. Get news, updates and unique content to share and discuss:

Recommended by our audience on Facebook:
Copyright © 2014 Maine Public Broadcasting Network. All rights reserved.