Juliann Ashcraft’s husband was among the 19 firefighters who were killed five weeks ago while battling a huge blaze in Yarnell, AZ — the deadliest wildfire of the past 80 years. Gov. Jan Brewer (R-AZ) and Vice President Joe Biden have called her late husband a hero. Nevertheless, Ashcraft says she’s being denied salary and health benefits in the aftermath of his death because city officials considered him to be a part-time employee.
The slain men were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew. “These men were some of the strongest, most disciplined, tenacious, physically fit men in the world. An elite unit in every sense of that phrase,” Biden said at a memorial service for the firefighters in June.
But city officials in Prescott, AZ considered Ashcraft’s husband to be a part-time, seasonal employee. Under that definition, Ashcraft and her four children — the youngest of whom is just 18 months old — aren’t entitled to the lifetime benefits that the families of full-time members of the Hotshot crew will receive. The seasonal employees will get worker’s compensation and a one-time federal payment of $328,000 — and no guaranteed health care.
“As shocked as I was that my husband went to work and never came home, I’m equally shocked in how the city has treated our family since then,” Ashcraft told CBS News. She says her husband was working 40 hours a week at the time of his death, and CBS News obtained paperwork confirming that he did earn a full-time salary from the city.
“I said to them, ‘My husband was a full-time employee. He went to work full-time for you,'” Ashcraft told CBS. She said that city officials responded, “Perhaps there was a communication issue in your marriage.”
Outside of the Ashcraft family, loopholes in federal and state employment laws can often prevent emergency responders from receiving the benefits they need. For instance, after Hurricane Sandy tore across the East Coast in November, the FEMA workers who helped facilitate the disaster relief efforts did not qualify for health benefits — despite the risky nature of their work — because they were classified as part-time, seasonal workers. After more than 110,000 people signed onto a petition asking the government to change that rule, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) agreed to revise its policy, allowing FEMA’s disaster relief employees to become eligible for permanent benefits.
But that victory doesn’t necessarily mean that cities like Prescott have followed suit. Employers may use their own definitions for “part-time” and “full-time” because there’s no official definition put forth under the Fair Labor Standards Act — which may allow Prescott to maintain that Ashcroft’s husband didn’t qualify as a full-time worker.
“The city has fully complied with all of the laws and employment policies that direct survivor benefits,” Prescott officials said in a statement provided to CBS News on Monday.
The Arizona Department of Insurance may consider providing health insurance subsidies to slain firefighters’ families on a case-by-case basis, but Juliann Ashcraft wants the security of knowing that her family will be taken care of. She is considering filing suit against the city. “Quite literally, my bills are being paid by the good people of the world who are giving donations, because the city of Prescott isn’t doing anything for us,” she explained, saying she’s desperate for help. “Now I have four kids and myself, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”