In response to a petition brought by the town of Halifax, the State Auditor’s Division of Local Mandates on Feb. 6 determined that a 2018 law regarding disability benefits for firefighters is not an unfunded mandate under the local mandates law.

Last year, Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation that amended the state law covering injured-on-duty pay for public safety employees. The amendments to Chapter 32, Section 94B, and Chapter 41, Section 111F, extended the presumption that cancer arose in the line of duty, which already existed in retirement law, to active firefighters who take leave from their job due to a cancer diagnosis. The amended law mandates leave without loss of pay for the period of incapacity – until the employee retires or is cleared of the condition by a physician.

The law did not change access to health benefits and paid leave for firefighters, but it did change how municipal employers pay firefighters while they are on leave for cancer treatment. Previously, firefighters used accrued paid sick leave to receive full pay; now they do not need to use sick time. Accrued sick leave amounts are paid out to an employee who may transition from Section 111F leave to disability retirement.

Both employers and employees face an emotional toll when a firefighter is diagnosed with cancer, but municipalities are also responsible to taxpayers to manage financial obligations. Workplace requirements, like overtime or increased pension costs, can become major budgetary concerns.

On Aug. 17, 2018, the town of Halifax petitioned the Division of Local Mandates for a determination as to whether the new injured-on-duty benefit for firefighters was an unfunded mandate in violation of the local mandate law (M.G.L. Ch. 29, Sec. 27C). Halifax documented municipal expenses that will increase as a result of the amended law, including medical costs, wages and pension costs.

Under the local mandate law, enacted in 1981 as part of Proposition 2½, a community must vote to accept any law or regulation, or the Commonwealth must provide funding to communities to effectuate the law or regulation. If a law seeks to impose direct service or cost obligations, a city or town may ask the Office of the State Auditor to determine if the law constitutes an unfunded mandate. Communities may also request an exemption from compliance in superior court.

The MMA submitted a letter in support of Halifax’s request and provided additional information regarding the impact of the amended law on municipal budgets statewide. The MMA noted that the amended law became effective for all qualifying firefighters and certain police officers, and that municipalities have no choice but to comply. Unlike negotiable employer-provided benefits, such as vacation, personal and sick leave, and other terms and conditions of employment, injured-on-duty leave under Section 111F is wage replacement mandated by law. There is no mechanism for municipalities to opt in or out.

The Division of Local Mandates determined that work-related injury benefits for firefighters under the amended law are governed by Article 115 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution, which grants the Legislature the authority to amend the terms and conditions of municipal benefits. The division found that “injuries in the line of duty and paid leave determinations are inherently related to compensation and the benefits and conditions of municipal employment.”

Individual cities and towns retain the option of requesting an exemption in superior court.

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