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Get the latest coverage of the 2024 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

DeSantis signs a bill clarifying cancer benefits for firefighters - but Tallahassee isn't on board

The new law clarifies the Legislature's intention to provide benefits to firefighters with cancer
The new law clarifies the Legislature's intention to provide benefits to firefighters with cancer

The city hasn’t given all those benefits to Joey Davis, president of the Tallahassee firefighter’s union and a cancer survivor.

During the 2024 legislative session, lawmakers passed a sweeping bill addressing issues important to Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis. Patronis is also the state’s fire marshal, and one item he wanted to be sure the bill includes is language clarifying benefits for firefighters who get cancer, which is considered an occupational hazard. Now, Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed the bill, opening a new chapter in an ongoing conflict between the city of Tallahassee and the statewide firefighter’s union.

Lawmakers first took up the issue back in 2019, when the Florida Legislature passed a law deeming cancer an occupational hazard for firefighters. That’s due, in part, to toxic materials in the fires they’re tasked with putting out. The law grants death benefits for the surviving spouse of a firefighter who dies of cancer as well as benefits to cover the treatment a firefighter receives.

But the city of Tallahassee hasn’t given all those benefits to Joey Davis, the president of the Tallahassee firefighter’s union.

"I came back to work…gosh…a month and a half after emergency surgery and having a lot of things taken out of me," says Davis. "I’d been in the hospital for two weeks, and a month after getting out of the hospital, I was back to work.”

Davis says the city paid him his full salary while he was getting treatment, but also deducted the time from his sick leave. He filed a complaint in Leon County’s Circuit Court to determine whether the law covered his time off while being treated for colon cancer.

Meanwhile, the statewide firefighter’s union also asked the Legislature for help – and, arguably, got it in the form of this year’s CFO bill.

Here’s Wayne “Bernie” Bernoska, president of the Florida Professional Fire Fighters:

“We did approach our Legislature to see if we could get that clarification," he says. "The Legislature passed the clarification of the CFO’s bill, and the governor last week signed that. So, our hope is that that makes it clearer for what the intent of the law always has been so that they can apply it to the Tallahassee firefighters.”

But the city of Tallahassee, thus far, hasn’t changed its stance. Last week, Davis got a letter from City Clerk James O. Cooke, who writes that the new law is not retroactive and would not apply in this case. Here’s Davis:

“So, at this point, if the city does not solve the issue, they’re looking to basically spend more taking it to mediation and to court than the actual coverage of my time would be,” he says.

That angers Rep. Joe Casello, a Boynton Beach Democrat. He was a firefighter for 33 years, and two years ago co-sponsored a firefighters’ bill of rights.

“For the city to say, your service is just a job? It’s more than a job. Call 911 and tell them, ‘Hey, come here and do your job.’ You don’t have to say anything. They’re there, the professionals. The city is not acting professional with this.”

Casello says the Legislature absolutely intended to clarify the cancer benefits. Senate Bill 989, the CFO’s bill, spells out 20 individual types of cancer for which firefighters should receive benefits. Davis has been treated for one of those, and so Casello says the law should apply in this case.

“This is the law. There’s a law. Just follow the law," he says. "And don’t try to read anything that isn’t in the bill. It doesn’t say, ‘Start date July 1, 2024.’ It doesn’t say ‘retroactive.’ It just says, ‘You’ve got cancer? You’re covered.’”

City Attorney Amy Toman wrote in a statement that the city is "reviewing the amended law and will proceed accordingly."

Davis remains hopeful.

“We’ve been told over the last 24 hours that they are looking to review that stance," he says, "and we hope that they look at the language and realize that the right thing to do is also the easy thing to do here.”

According to Bernie Bernoska, president of the statewide firefighters union, there are just two cities in Florida to challenge the benefits package. Tallahassee is one.

Copyright 2024 WFSU

Margie Menzel