Petitioners Demand Health Care Benefits For Hurricane Sandy First Responders

Even though first responders’ important work may put them at risk for physical injuries and exposure to harmful substances — especially in the wake of natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy — not all rescue workers are eligible for the health benefits they need to counteract those occupational hazards.

Since about 70 percent of FEMA’s workforce serves as temporary, part-time rescue workers during times of disaster — often through the Reservist Program, FEMA’s branch of on-call disaster relief workers — they don’t qualify for employer-sponsored insurance. Only 770 of the 9,106 disaster assistance employees employed by FEMA currently receive federal health insurance in their positions, while the rest are left to fend for themselves on the private insurance market.

But one woman is trying to change that by circulating a petition aimed at securing health coverage for the large percentage of part-time responders who are currently forced to forego it:

Reservists are paid a flat rate of between $11.29 and $42.03 per hour when they are in travel, on duty or training – usually about 30 days at a time. The jobs do not include health insurance, annual leave or retirement benefits since they are meant to be temporary. […]

Dena Patrick, founder of a social charitable website, Wishadoo, started a petition on Monday to argue for FEMA reservists to get health benefits. “I feel that our priorities are skewed,” said Patrick.

Patrick said she was motivated to act by her friend, a reservist, who she said works 300 days a year and is not insured. When Hurricane Sandy hit, Patrick realized that other first responders were not covered unless they had a separate insurance plan. As of Saturday morning the petition had more than 4,900 signatures.

One of the barriers to comprehensive health benefits for these workers is the loose application of their “part-time” status. Even the first responders who serve 10 months out of the year do not qualify for full time benefits — despite the fact that their career is fraught with medical risk.

Specific groups of rescue workers have won victories on this front in recent years. This fall, 9/11 first responders gained coverage for 50 different types of cancer that may have been caused by their exposure to Ground Zero contaminants. But thousands of federal relief workers who lead the charge in rescue efforts for disasters such as Hurricane Sandy are still waiting.