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Monday, 05 August 2013 22:57

Family of Fallen Firefighter Questions Benefits

 
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After a tragic death, families and communities must consider how to move forward. What does the City owe them, and what can the City do legally?

Losing a loved one in a tragedy is really, really difficult. If that loved one is the family's breadwinner, sometimes what comes afterwards is even harder.

Questions arise. Navigating the maze of finances, benefits and what to do with the things that are left behind can become huge issues.

When the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot Firefighters were killed on June 30, nineteen families had to grapple with those questions and more. Six of the firefighters were full-time employees. Thirteen were seasonal, part-time employees, and did not have benefits such as health or life insurance.

The City of Prescott explained the situation in a July 26, 2013 press release:

There are three classifications of employees who work for the City of Prescott: full-time permanent, part-time permanent, and temporary. Permanent full-time employees are eligible for health insurance, life insurance, and annual and sick leave benefits. Permanent part-time and temporary employees are not eligible for these benefits.

According to the City Code, temporary employees may work on either a full or part-time basis for not more than twelve consecutive months, unless employment is sporadic and on an as-needed basis, or for a special project of a specific duration in excess of twelve months.

Prior to commencing employment with the City, individuals must acknowledge and sign an agreement that they have been advised and understand their employment status as either a permanent or temporary employee. This acknowledgment outlines the benefits that are and are not available to them. If the employment status (permanent or temporary) for an individual changes, the employee is required to sign a new acknowledgment.

The fire season in the Prescott community, does not, thankfully, year around. That means that there wasn't enough work on the Granite Mountain Hotshot team to support 20 year-round wildfire fighters. Six were full-time, fourteen were seasonal. Some, however, were given opportunities to work in other departments in the city so they could support their families. City management, as the budget tightened, agreed to help find work for some of these men, but such work was not considered full time, either.

Full-Time or Part-Time?

Thus, the dilemma facing the family of Andrew Ashcraft. Ashcraft was married, and the father of four children. Most years, he continued to work for the city in temporary positions after fire season, which helped keep his family fed and housed. But, according to City spokesperson, Pete Wertheim, he was never considered a full time employee, and was not ever given full time benefits.

seasonalstatus

 

Every employee is required to sign a letter defining their work status, Ashcraft was no exception. On February 11, 2013, Ashcraft was rehired and given a raise from $12.48 an hour to $15.03 an hour. On his Personnel Action page, signed by City Manager Craig McConnell, it read, "Reactivate temporary seasonal employee w/rate increase."

 

reactivation2

 

Job Opening

In April, two permanent positions, which would have included full time benefits, opened up on the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew. Ashcraft interviewed for each position separately before a panel of 4 people. One interviewer was from the Human Resources Department, Melissa Fousek. The other three were from the Hotshot Crew were Eric Marsh, Jessie Steed and Clayton Whitted.

Each candidate was graded on their interview.

When the interviews were completed, Robert Caldwell was offered one position, Travis Turbyfill was offered the second positon.

In both interviews, Ashcraft scored the third highest.

Interview – Caldwell Selected (letter dated 4-4-13)
Turbyfill 251
Caldwell 219
Ashcraft 198
Mackenzie 150

Interview – Turbyfill Selected (letter dated 4-5-13)
Turbyfilll 133
Mackenzie 133
Ashcraft 124
Thurston 115
Parker 113

Notes were taken by the four interviewers of each of candidates' response. Two noted that in the interviews for the first position, Ashcraft said he would "...work as hard as he can as long as wife will let him."

Promises?

However, Ashcraft's family still believes that he should have been eligible for full time benefits, and his estate should be paid the same amount that the other full-time employee families receive.

His mother, Deborah Pfingston, allegedly posted the following on Facebook page titled, 19 Prescott Firefighter's Last Alarm:

"I am very unhappy & hurt to say that the City of Prescott has chosen not to honor a promise. First, I would like to say that the citizens of Prescott, Arizona and the nation (and in some situations the world) have been so loving & supportive. ALL firefighters whether structure or the incredible Hot Shot community has gone above and beyond in every way imaginable. In fact all first responders have been wonderful. The outpouring of support from close friends - to people I will never meet has help us day by day in this new painful normal that we now live.

"Yet the City of Prescott has chosen to deny my son Andrew Ashcraft his full time benefits. The events since June 30th have been unbearable to say the least. The City promised to care for Andrew's family and he gave his life trusting in that promise. The mayor and the city council have decided to go back on that promise. We have been forced to fight. Monday August 5th on CBS Nightly News @ 6 we talk about some of the issues. There will be an additional segment on CBS This Morning Tuesday August 6th.

"We are asking for you to please help us with prayer. Also on Tuesday August 6th @12:30 we will be holding a press conference on the steps of the courthouse in downtown Prescott. The town that has circled us and the town the Andrew loved. I offer an invitation for you to come and respectfully stand with us. Quietly and peacefully show the City of Prescott that they MUST honor their promise to Andrew and give his family the benefits package that he deserved and that he trusted the City of Prescott for.

"Thank you
"Deborah Pfingston (Andrews Very own MOTHER)"

At the end of this posting, links and contact information are provided for City of Prescott officials, Governor Brewer and Senators McCain and Flake.

Why does the Ashcraft family believe that they are entitled to the same benefits as full-time firefighters? It is not clear from the posting above. However, by the end of the Press Conference, the administrators of the 19 Prescott Firefighter's Last Alarm page promise the questions will be answered.

"The Admin are working very heard to make sure we keep everyone up to date with whats going on. Please do not post links to articles in the comments since the family is asking us to post of their behalf. These families know exactly what they are experiencing with the city and we are not going to debate what the families are going through. The press conference WILL answer any question that you have about this. From here on out if a link is posted without it being sent to admin first it will be deleted and any rude or nasty comments will be deleted and you will be banned. Show these families the respect that they deserve."

City of Prescott Responds

In the meantime, the City of Prescott denied they are witholding any benefits, and sent out a strongly worded press release to that effect:

False Accusations of Benefits Being Withheld

The City of Prescott is being wrongly accused of failing to provide survivor benefits to the families of the seasonal fallen Granite Mountain Hotshots.

The City has fully complied with all of the laws and employment policies that direct survivor benefits. The personnel files of these men clearly rebut unfounded views that the employment status and benefits of any of the firefighters were somehow altered or mishandled in a way that would cause any confusion.

It has been mistakenly suggested that the City made a promise that it would somehow find a way to retroactively reclassify temporary employees as permanent employees so the families can receive additional survivor benefits. The City cannot do this legally; the benefits for programs such as health insurance and the public safety employee pension can only be provided if the individual was enrolled in those programs when the death occurred.

City officials have been steadfast in their commitment to make sure the families have access to all available benefits. The City knows that there is no sum of money that could ever represent the value of a life of any City employee. These men and their families made equal sacrifices and we are deeply saddened by the loss of our finest employees.

So, more questions arise. How much money are they getting? Why do they believe they should get more? Why does the City believe that they are providing the maximum benefits they are legally allowed to provide? Stay tuned, because it's obvious this story isn't finished yet.

 

 

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