Firefighter Union Promises to ‘Come in Heavy’ Against Stamford on Denied Cancer Claim

Credit: CT Examiner


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STAMFORD – Local, state and international firefighter unions are up in arms about what they say is the city’s betrayal of one of their members battling cancer.

Stamford firefighter Jonathan Cunningham was diagnosed three years ago with multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer of the blood plasma that can damage the bones, kidneys and immune system, and destroy red blood cells.

According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, firefighters are at higher risk of developing a variety of cancers because of harmful chemicals in smoke, soot, foams used to fight fires, and even exposure to their protective gear. Multiple myeloma is near the top of the list.

Cunningham filed a claim with the state Workers Compensation Commission, which was denied by the city’s insurance carrier. The union then filed a grievance that ended up before a neutral arbitrator who ruled in Cunningham’s favor. But instead of paying Cunningham’s claim, the city has taken his union to court to try to reverse the arbitrator’s decision.

Cunningham said Wednesday he doesn’t understand it.

“I get the impression that it is normal practice for cities and insurance carriers to deny a case and tie it up in court until the person isn’t there to fight anymore,” he said. “When I ask myself, ‘What’s the angle?’ The only thing I can think of is, a grave asks no questions.” 

Binding arbitration is rarely, if ever, contested, said Paul Anderson, president of the Stamford Professional Fire Fighters Association, Local 786 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. 

“Binding arbitration is the foundation of the collective bargaining system,” Anderson said. “It’s what keeps everybody honest. Ignoring it is a big deal. That’s why everybody is weighing in.”

‘I ran marathons’

The goal of arbitration is to avoid expensive, protracted trials, said Jay Colbert, vice president of the International Association of Fire Fighters District 3, which represents six New England states.

“Arbitration is to keep things cordial. An independent arbitrator can look at things and come up with a solution,” Colbert said. “It’s a way to say, ‘Let’s put our cards on the table and wherever they fall, we’ll abide by it.’ For the city to not abide by it is egregious.” 

Ed Hawthorne is president of the Connecticut chapter of the AFL-CIO, an international federation of 60 labor unions, including the International Association of Fire Fighters.

A binding arbitration award is “the culmination of good-faith negotiations between the union and the city government,” Hawthorne said.

It “plays a vital role in maintaining fair and impartial resolutions, safeguarding the rights of workers, and ensuring harmonious labor relations within the city,” he said.

Instead, Cunningham said, he has hired an attorney.

“They say you don’t have to but, in my state of health, I don’t want to deal with any of this,” he said. “I have always taken care of my health. I completed Iron Man competitions; I ran marathons. Now I get tired walking up a flight of stairs.”

Assume it’s job-related

It’s unclear why Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons’ administration is contesting the arbitrator’s ruling in court. 

Asked Wednesday whether it is related to the city’s insurance coverage, as firefighters allege, Lauren Meyer, special assistant to the mayor, did not directly reply.

“The decision to appeal was made by the law department, who deemed it was in the best interest of Stamford taxpayers,” Meyer said in an email. “We will continue to support all Stamford firefighters in every way we can.” 

City officials at some point considered cancer and other illnesses to be such risks to firefighters that they included in the union contract a clause that says “any respiratory disease, heart disease, hypertension or cancer resulting in total or partial disability to an employee shall be presumed to have been suffered” in the line of duty.

Moreover, Connecticut last month joined nearly every other state in the country and passed a law requiring that firefighters with certain cancers receive workers’ compensation benefits and disability retirement benefits. The law says municipalities must pay the benefits then apply for reimbursement from the state firefighters cancer relief account.

But the law, which takes effect Oct. 1, applies to cases going back three years, to Oct. 1, 2020, Anderson said. Cunningham was diagnosed 16 days before that date, so the law does not cover him, Anderson said.

The city is paying Cunningham’s medical bills, Anderson said. The dispute is over Cunningham’s workers’ compensation and disability pension benefits.

“If it is a line-of-duty injury, as the arbitrator said, his family is covered,” Anderson said. Cunningham, who has been a Stamford firefighter since 2008, “wants to know that his wife will be taken care of when he dies,” Anderson said. 

A cause unknown

The case file shows that Cunningham put in a claim with the state Workers Compensation Commission in September 2020. The city and the union went back and forth for more than two years, and the dispute landed before the American Arbitration Association, which opened a hearing in April of this year. 

According to the file, Cunningham’s hearing was closed June 23 and on June 30 arbitrator Susan Meredith decided in his favor.

The case file shows that the city hired a forensic toxicologist, Dr. Robert Powers, to produce a report on Cunningham’s condition.

Powers determined that “although some studies have found that long-term firefighters may have a slightly elevated risk of developing multiple myeloma, those studies do not help determine causation for a specific individual,” according to the file. Powers said Cunningham’s risk of developing multiple myeloma “was not different from that of the general public,” and concluded that he doesn’t know what caused the cancer. 

That is evidence that Cunningham’s illness did not arise from his employment, the city claims. 

But Meredith, the arbitrator, wrote that though Powers concluded that there is not sufficient evidence to decide that Cunningham’s cancer was caused by his job, Powers did not identify any other possible cause, and conceded that firefighters have an increased risk for multiple myeloma.

So “there is no argument that (Cunningham’s) cancer was caused by something other than his employment,” Meredith wrote. Because the clause in the firefighters’ contract states that cancer “shall be presumed to have been suffered” in the line of duty, the city could not deny Cunningham compensation for his claim.

A second case

Nevertheless, on July 31 city attorneys filed a lawsuit against the firefighters’ union, charging that Powers’ report provided evidence that Cunningham’s cancer did not arise from his job and that “the arbitrator exceeded her powers or so imperfectly executed them” that her decision is invalid.

It isn’t the first time the city contested an arbitration award in court. In 2021, the city disputed a workers compensation claim by firefighter Victor Rella, who had hypertension. Rella won in arbitration and the court upheld his award, saying the firefighters’ contract does not allow the city to contest whether such illnesses are work-related unless it can produce evidence showing otherwise. 

Anderson said Simmons supported attempts to require municipalities to presume that certain firefighter illnesses are job-related when she served as state representative prior to her election as mayor.

“It’s a shame. Simmons was at the state backing all this, which is a reason we endorsed her when she ran for mayor. Now that she has to pay the bills, that comes before the people who work for her,” Anderson said. “The city loses cases in arbitration and opts to go outside to the courts, and Simmons claims it has to do with the city’s insurance contract, that they have to exhaust every appeal.  But they did that at arbitration.” 

Meyers said Simmons’ “position on coverage for presumptive work-related illnesses for firefighters has not changed – she supported it as a state representative and she supports the state legislation the General Assembly passed this year.”

No firefighter regrets

Peter Brown, president of the Uniformed Professional Fire Fighters Association of Connecticut, said “occupational cancer kills nearly three times more firefighters every year than every other cause of death combined … I am extremely disappointed at Mayor Simmons’s decision to challenge an arbitration award providing cancer coverage to a Stamford firefighter a mere 60 days before this law goes into effect. I sincerely hope her administration will reconsider this decision and provide our firefighter the protections he deserves.”

Colbert said the International Association of Fire Fighters will provide grants to help the Stamford local pay legal fees in the court case.

“We’re coming in heavy on this, because of what it does to the collective bargaining process. How do you engender trust after this?” Colbert said. “For the firefighter to get the award and then have the city not honor it, that’s bad enough. But this involves cancer, which makes it that much more despicable. Cancer deaths among firefighters is an epidemic. It’s our No. 1 fight in the 21st century.”

Cunningham said he took precautions on the job, “yet here we are.”

“I can’t say I regret becoming a firefighter. It’s very satisfying to serve your community,” Cunningham said. “But I can say that the political things firefighters have to deal with are appalling. During an election the politicians want to hold hands, but when they get into office, they forget about you.”

This story was updated to clarify that the city’s insurance carrier denied the claim with the state Workers Compensation Commission

Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.