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Firefighter wins battle with city

Thursday, September 20, 2018 by Jo Clifton

Austin firefighters won their battle to get the city to drop its lawsuit against one of their own, Lt. Carrie Stewart, who filed a claim for workers’ compensation after she was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer in 2015.

After meeting with City Council in executive session on Tuesday, City Manager Spencer Cronk decided the city should drop the suit. His email to the mayor and Council stated, “I have asked the Law Department to dismiss the current litigation involving our firefighter, Carrie Stewart. This has been a difficult situation from the beginning, and as your new city manager, I am glad to have Council’s perspective on this matter as I reviewed it for the first time.

“While every workers’ compensation claim will be different, the circumstances here compel me to abide by the decision of the Department of Workers’ Compensation,” Cronk concluded.

The city sued Stewart in 2017 to overturn two decisions by the workers’ compensation division of the Texas Department of Insurance determining that her cancer was work related. The suit specifically requested a reversal of the determination that her cancer was related to her shift work at the Austin Fire Department.

In addition, the suit requested an order to deny Stewart benefits under the act, as well as legal fees. Stewart told the Austin Monitor that after the state agency judges found that her injury was work related, the city started to pay for her doctors’ visits and compensated her for the 30 days she was off work following a double mastectomy in 2015. However, Stewart noted that the city wanted to stop paying for her doctor under workers’ compensation.

In a news release, the Austin Firefighters Association thanked Council Member Delia Garza, a former firefighter, and Mayor Steve Adler in particular, as well as the rest of Council, for their assistance in convincing the manager to drop the suit.

Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks said in a news release that the association remains concerned about how the lawsuit could be filed and an outside attorney hired without the knowledge of Council. “That’s something we’re going to look into moving forward,” Nicks said, “but for today, we’re just thankful that the city made the right choice and is dropping their lawsuit against Carrie.” Despite involvement of outside counsel at an earlier stage of this dispute, a city spokesman said the city had not hired outside counsel for the lawsuit.

In the same release, Stewart thanked the many people who called, emailed and posted on Facebook to get Council’s attention on the matter. KXAN was the first to publicize news of the lawsuit, and it caught the attention of the public as well as firefighters organizations far from Austin.

Stewart told the Monitor that state law specifically designates firefighting and shift work as carcinogenic, but because there are so few female firefighters it has been difficult to show that a firefighter’s breast cancer is specifically related to her work. Most of the research done on breast cancer and shift work has been related to occupations like airline attendant, she noted. However, there is specific data about cancer coming out of the San Francisco Fire Department, which is 15 percent female.

That data indicates that those women firefighters have breast cancer at a rate of six times the national average, Stewart said. However, it is difficult to know whether their breast cancer is specifically related to the carcinogens they encounter fighting fires or the carcinogenic nature of shift work and the interrupted sleep that it causes.

Stewart’s is the first case of its kind at AFD. However, as more women enter the ranks of firefighters, there will probably be more. Also, the firefighters union will be watching how the city handles other workers’ compensation requests from firefighters who have cancer, so this issue will likely surface again. Unlike private businesses, the city does not have a workers’ compensation insurer, but is self-insured.

Photo by John Flynn.

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