First responders should be able to retire earlier and receive stronger workers’ compensation protections, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper told a major firefighters union this week.
The changes could cost state or local taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year. But they would work “to attract and retain the best people, with courage, for this profession,” Cooper said.
“Whether we like it or not we have to face facts,” he added. “We have to look at data. And law enforcement officers and firefighters die younger than the general population. It is because of the stress, the toxic chemicals you come in contact with every day in your work.”
Cooper already unveiled part of these suggestions – calling for law enforcement officers to be able to retire after 25 years instead of 30 – in his budget proposal released last week.
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His budget would spend $7 million a year to let state-employed officers move their retirement up. Now, he’s also urging legislators to change workers’ comp laws for firefighters.
“We all know that firefighters face an increased risk of dying from cancer,” Cooper said in his speech, delivered Monday to the International Association of Firefighters at a Washington, D.C., meeting. “In North Carolina we need to ensure a law that would provide firefighters workers’ compensation for certain cancers.”
Research has shown a possible link between how many calls a firefighter goes on and how likely the firefighter is to get cancer. In addition to the connection between smoke and lung cancer, much modern furniture contains synthetic materials that, when burned, give off carcinogenic fumes.
The state employs fewer than 150 firefighters, according to a News & Observer database of public employee salaries. But city governments employ thousands of firefighters.
Most, if not all, cities and counties in North Carolina have workers’ compensation insurance that protects them from costly lawsuits.
The North Carolina League of Municipalities advocates for city governments. It’s cautious of Cooper’s proposals.
“I think, clearly, every city and town in North Carolina wants to do well by firefighters and police officers,” said Scott Mooneyham, the organization’s public affairs director. “But you have to look at that in context with costs related to the pension funds or workers compensation.”
Mooneyham said Cooper’s early retirement plan would cost North Carolina’s local governments an estimated $35 million a year, according to research the league has done.
Mooneyham said the league has already been working with local governments to give first responders training in safety and health issues, to keep costs down “on the front end.”
Cooper was one of several politicians who spoke at the International Association of Firefighters meeting.
The group was a major contributor to Cooper’s campaign for governor last fall, and Cooper told members that “your endorsement early in the process, your help, your advice, it mattered a lot.”
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran