Firefighter’s widow denied funds

first_imgToday, Groff’s widow, Christine Wells-Groff of Santa Rosa, is expected to file a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court in her quest to receive the death benefits her husband had assumed would be provided. So far, one federal court judge ruled that she was entitled to the federal Public Safety Officer Benefits that survivors of government employees receive. But an appellate judge later overturned that decision. At issue is whether thousands of contract employees who undertake dangerous duty on behalf of California taxpayers should be entitled to the same benefits as government employees. “Everyone else has given up after their first denial, but I feel very strongly about this as an issue,” said Wells-Groff. “I’ve already spent more than anything I would receive back. I’ve mortgaged my house to pay for attorneys in this six-year, six-figure battle. This is for the others now.” Groff was flying a state-operated air tanker that day and even wearing a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection uniform. Nonetheless, he was a contract employee, and legal experts say there’s only a slim chance the high court will even review the case, much less reverse the appellate court. The benefits program, started by Congress in 1976 to help recruit and retain public-safety workers, includes a lump-sum payoff to survivors of federal, state or local government employees killed in the line of duty, as well as ongoing benefits in some cases. Wells-Groff’s suit has been filed against the federal government since it administers the program and, in this case, denied the claim for benefits. U.S. Justice Department attorneys have sought to clearly label survivor benefits as being only for direct government employees, citing multimillion-dollar costs of making any broader definition. Why, they argue, should taxpayers finance benefits for employees working under contract to the government? But Michael Brook, Wells-Groff’s Santa Rosa attorney, argues otherwise. “When Congress enacted this, it was seen to help with morale and recruitment and was a small token of public appreciation for the risks these people face,” he said. “Contract employees face the same dangers as they protect the public.” But if they die, they are covered only by the contract companies’ life-insurance programs, which pay far less. Wells-Groff, 49, got a life insurance award of $50,000 through her husband’s employer, San Joaquin Helicopters, but no ongoing benefits. Public-safety officers’ benefits would have entitled her to a lump sum of about $250,000, plus ongoing benefits. Contractors’ death benefits are limited, government and union officials contend, because the firms are trying to squeeze as much profit as possible out of government pacts. Contractors who were contacted about the matter declined to comment. Associated Airtanker Pilots, a group that represents the tanker pilots, says that since 1958 more than 160 aerial firefighters have been killed while on duty. After Groff’s death, the state Legislature approved providing death benefits comparable to those received by government-paid firefighters and public safety workers for pilots working under contract with the CDF. But that law came too late to help Groff’s family. And despite the pleas, congressional proposals to extend government-worker survivor benefits to contract pilots have been opposed by the U.S. Forest Service. The thin line between being a government employee and a contract employee doing government work seemed to be especially important to a federal claims court judge, Lynn Bush, who handed Wells-Groff her initial victory back in July 2006. “Groff was officially recognized as being functionally within the California Department of Forestry,” the judge wrote, and was “serving a public agency in an official capacity.” She also noted that “survivors of some nongovernmental employees were awarded (government death) benefits during the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.” But in July of this year, a federal appellate court overturned her decision, saying Congress essentially remained silent on whether contract employees would be included in survivor benefits. The Justice Department has interpreted that to mean they are not. Now it may be the Supreme Court’s turn to weigh in – and possibly Wells-Groff’s last chance. “There are so many kids out there fighting fire on contract for the U.S. Forest Service,” she said. “My court case is really for them, as well as the pilots. It’s pretty damn sad, what our government does to its own people – hiring contractors to hire kids so they don’t have to pay benefits.” [email protected] (916) 447-9302 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! SACRAMENTO – Larry Groff roared out of Ukiah in state Air Tanker 87 on Aug. 27, 2001, doing what he loved – flying and fighting wildfires. Like thousands of contract firefighters hired by the government, Groff figured that if anything ever happened to him, his private employers or the government would take care of his wife and six children. That day, Groff was killed in a midair collision while maneuvering above a North Coast wildfire ignited by a a meth-lab explosion. The two who started the fire were convicted of murder and sent to prison, but a courthouse battle continues. last_img read more