Letter to the Editor - Don Elisburg


Almost one year ago I was asked if I would provide pro-bono assistance to Ron Erbel in dealing with the compensation issues he was facing after his diagnosis of prostate cancer. Ron was one of five Key Biscayne firefighters who went to NYC after the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster to help with recovery. Prostate cancer is one of the cancers identified as something these type workers had a higher risk of contracting. More recently, this cancer is one of 21 cancers identified with firefighter exposure in the workplace.

Ron has received medical treatment under the World Trade Center program, but he has not been eligible for lost time compensation as firefighter cancer is not covered under the Florida worker’s compensation law. Earlier this year, the Florida Legislature passed a Firefighter Cancer statute that provides for payment of benefits to firefighters diagnosed with a cancer on the list of 21 on or after July 1, 2019. The law does not cover those diagnosed before July 1.

Ron, who retired this summer, and Angela Herrera are two Key Biscayne firefighters who were diagnosed with active cancers before July 1, 2019. Therefore, they are not eligible for the protections in this new legislation.

As in other fire services, Key Biscayne firefighters frequently assist their colleagues’ financial needs by volunteering to work their shifts when they are out ill. The shift exchange has been determined to be permissible under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The result is that firefighters who work another’s shift are effectively gifting the money to the ill worker. Payback may happen but is not required. Accordingly, with illnesses such as cancer the employees of KBFR who trade shifts are effectively providing the sick benefits rather than the Village.

Coordinating with the Village Manager, Mayor Michael Davey, Chief Eric Lang, our Village law firm and others, we worked on possible fair compensation plans to help Ron and Angela recover some of their lost time. Our goal was a fair fix for these two individuals. We recognized that KB firefighters with an active cancer diagnosis after July 1, 2019 would be eligible for the new benefits. We moved forward with a proposal that would apply the provisions of the new law to those KB firefighters with eligible active cancer cases prior to July 1, 2019. It was a simple fix.

The Village Manager’s office concurred with the approach. The mayor agreed to proceed. The Village attorney approved the drafting of the resolution. And a number of other council members also agreed to support the proposal. The proposal states that Key Biscayne would make these two individuals whole and not penalize them because of the July 1, 2019 cut-off date in the statute.

Unfortunately, the proposed resolution has been delayed over four months because of other Village issues. There now appears to be some opposition to this measure unless a group of three KB firefighters diagnosed and treated before the cut-off date and currently in remission are also included in the resolution. It is not clear what the Village administration or the Village Council intends to do in moving forward with the benefit for the two firefighters with active cancers.

The agreed upon proposal was seen as a remedy for a very unfortunate situation for two of our firefighters needing some relief from their employer, the Village of Key Biscayne, because they aren’t eligible for the benefits in the state statute. Frankly, the three additional situations are not without some merit, even though they are not recent cancer cases. In the end, the real question is to what extent are our Village elected officials willing to make whole the men and women who protect us by assuring their economic protection when they develop one or more of the 21 cancers that are otherwise not covered by the State worker’s compensation laws.

It is now time for the Village to put the resolution of this matter front and center and let everyone know that a decision has been made. Workplace illness is a serious matter and the fact that the statute lists 21 cancers that firefighters are more eligible to being diagnosed with tells us not to put our heads in the sand. Every day that our firefighters put on their uniforms and come to work to protect us they put themselves in a more dangerous health possibility than the rest of us. It’s our patriotic responsibility to take care of them when all other resources have been exhausted.

It’s time for our Village council members to decide, and for the rest of us to let those who we elected know we expect those covered by the proposed resolution not to be penalized because of the state’s cut-off date. My apologies to Ron and Angela for the length of time that it is taking to get things this far. I’m counting on everyone who reads this to raise a hand and let our elected leaders know that we need to respect these workers who put their lives on the line for us.

Donald Elisburg / Key Biscayne, FL