On July 1, 19 “Hotshot” firefighters from Prescott, AZ., died in a massive forest fire. The city immediately pledged that it was “first and foremost committed to assisting” the families they left behind.
But one month later Juliann Ashcraft, one of the Hotshots’ widows, says the city is falling short on its pledge. Because her husband Andrew was technically classified as a temporary employee, she says she is being denied the survivors’ benefits she needs to support her four children.
What happened to Ashcraft could happen anywhere in America. Her husband worked on one of the country’s 109 Interagency Hotshot Crews, which specialize in battling wildfires. Pete Wertheim, communications director for the city of Prescott, said that such crews “typically consist of 60% or 70% temporary workers.” Of the 19 doomed “Hotshots,” 13 (including Andrew Ashcraft) were temps.
“The composition of our hotshot crew, the number of permanent and temporary employees, [and] the size of the crew, are typical of the other 109 hotshot crews around the country,” he told msnbc.
If Prescott is the norm, that’s part of the problem, according to the firefighters union known as the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).
“Firefighters are under attack” around the country, union spokesman Scott Triebitz told msnbc. “You look at this and you tie in the attacks on public employees in communities around the country, where people are trying to balance budgets, and you say, ‘This is just crazy stuff,’” he said.
Juliann Ashcraft has been fighting with the city of Prescott to get the salary and health benefits she believes her husband earned during his three-year stint as a government employee. Thus far, she and her four children have received some benefits, including a federal lump-sum payment of $328,613, But the city has denied their request for health insurance, life insurance benefits and survivor benefits. Those sorts of benefits go only to the families of full-time, year-round firefighters; Andrew Ashcraft was employed on a seasonal basis and classified as a temporary employee.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track trends in seasonal employment for public employees, so it is difficult to tell whether local fire departments have come to rely more on part-time and seasonal employment over the past few years. However, local budget shortfalls since the 2008 financial collapse have spurred a wave of public sector layoffs and furloughs across the country. Firefighters haven’t been hurt as much as teachers, but they have not been spared from budget cuts. In Pontiac, Michigan, for example, the entire city fire department was turned over to nearby Waterford Township.
“The city has fully complied with all of the laws and employment policies that direct survivor benefits,” said Wertheim, of the city of Prescott, in a statement. Retroactively reclassifying Andrew Ashcraft and other seasonal employees so their families could receive additional benefits would be illegal, says the city.
But according to the Arizona fire fighters’ union, Ashcraft should have been considered a full-time employee in the first place.
“This year, they promoted him to lead saw,” said Tim Hill, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona (PFFA). “At that time, they gave him a commensurate pay raise, and that’s typically a full-time position.”
“The fact that somebody’s doing a particular duty doesn’t mean they get some sort of reclassification as part of that,” replied Wertheim. “They have to go through the HR process.” He said that Prescott’s employment policies were far from unusual.
“The city’s had its troubles with the budget like every city–and probably most of the country–during the recession,” said Wertheim. “The state was hit especially hard, and the city of Prescott has been no different.”
Hill said his union’s conflict with the Prescott city government extended beyond a single fight over benefits. For example, he said, Mayor Marlin Kuykendall has declined to recognize or negotiate with PFFA.
“Even outside the union piece of it, they’ve just treated the Fire Department poorly,” he said. “They’re understaffed; they have the same amount of firefighters they had in the 70′s, for a vastly expanded population.”
For the Ashcraft family at least, there may soon be some assistance from the state: Arizona House Speaker Andrew Tobin is working on legislation that would provide additional benefits to the families of the deceased seasonal firefighters. Wertheim said the city government was “encouraged” by the development. For Juliann Ashcraft, her future may hinge on the outcome.
Her husband and his unit “did everything they could for this city, and the city is doing the bare minimum in return,” Juliann Ashcraft told NBC News.