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Firefighter's family fights for full death benefits

7:24 PM, Aug 7, 2013   |    comments
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Juliann Ashcraft, widow of Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighter Andrew Ashcraft speaks at a news conference Thursday. She contends that by counting her husband as a seasonal employee, the city of Prescott, Ariz., has denied her family full survivors' benefits. (Photo: Les Stukenberg, AP)

PHOENIX (USA TODAY) -- The family of a firefighter killed with 18 colleagues while battling a summer wildfire is waging a campaign to press the city of Prescott, Ariz., to provide his survivors with full health and pension benefits.

The city, which employed Andrew Ashcraft and other members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, says Ashcraft and 12 others who died were seasonal employees, leaving their survivors ineligible for benefits that would go to a full-time employee.

"I want to be able to just be mourning my husband, be supporting my children, be figuring out what our new normal is," Juliann Ashcraft, Andrew's widow and mother of their four children, said at a news conference Wednesday outside the county courthouse in Prescott.

"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,'' she said.

Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots died June 30 when their position was overrun by the Yarnell Hill fire, which they were working to contain. Only one member of the hotshot team, a lookout positioned elsewhere on a ridge, survived.

Ashcraft worked more than 40 hours a week during much of the year, but Prescott officials told The Republic that he was not eligible for pension and health benefits and was not enrolled in the programs that pay those benefits to survivors.

Juliann Ashcraft argues that he merited full-time benefits. She is being backed by the group Change.org, which is circulating online petitions seeking full benefits.

"The bare bones of it is, he worked full time," she said in an interview. "I just know I've got to fight for what he earned. He died, and in doing so, he earned the right for his children to be provided for. And yet now, somehow, I have to prove why. And I don't understand that."

All families are to receive a one-time payment of $328,613 and various other financial and tuition benefits.

But the families of firefighters who were not categorized as full time are not eligible for three benefits that will go to survivors of the six full-time firefighters who also died: health insurance, a lump-sum life-insurance payment and monthly lifetime survivor benefits.

The lifetime survivor benefits are paid out by the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System, which Ashcraft did not pay into, city officials said.

The difference could amount to millions of dollars over a lifetime.

Ashcraft's employment application and forms that detail his work each season show he was a temporary seasonal employee who worked nearly year- round for the city in various assignments. Personnel records provided by the city show Ashcraft twice applied for other full-time positions but scored lower than other members of his team who were promoted to full time.

Juliann Ashcraft said she believes her husband was strung along. He had full-time employee responsibilities and got the same hourly pay rate as full-timers.

"The city, in an attempt to save a few bucks, has classified him for the purpose of benefits as a seasonal or part-time employee when, in fact, he worked full-time hours,'' she said.

City officials issued a statement saying it was "being wrongly accused of failing to provide survivor benefits to the families of the seasonal fallen Granite Mountain Hotshots." The statement did not name Ashcraft.

"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," said Pete Wertheim, Prescott communications manager. "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."

Ashcraft's brother, T.J. Ashcraft, said his brother worked a full-time schedule for more than a year. He said Andrew routinely put in 60-plus hours a week and had supervisor duties on the crew.

City records show Ashcraft was first hired in 2011, when he worked during the fire season. He rejoined the crew in 2012, and during winter worked on a city snow-removal crew.

Personnel records show Ashcraft signed a form acknowledging his temporary status when he was hired in 2011. The form read, in part, "as a temporary employee I will be paid on an hourly basis and I will not receive the same benefits nor be afforded the same employment protection as those individuals filling positions in the regular service."

Lori Higuera, a lawyer in Phoenix who specializes in employment issues, said that in general the issue of permanent status has little to do with the number of hours an employee works. She said a temporary employee might work the same hours or more than a full-time, permanent employee and still not qualify for benefits.

"The number of hours per week, or even per day, is not going to change the classification of a temporary or seasonal employee," Higuera said. "You could be a temporary worker, or seasonal worker, and still be full time."

T.J. Ashcraft said that city officials promised his brother benefits and that efforts were under way to ensure his brother would be properly classified.

Juliann Ashcraft said her husband took on a new position as "lead saw" this season and that crew chief Eric Marsh, who also died in the fire, had pursued benefits for him.

Ashcraft twice applied for promotion to full-time permanent positions this year, according to records provided by the city. An employment panel made up of three Granite Mountain Hotshots and a human-resources representative scored candidates based on interviews.

The scores released by the city indicated that Ashcraft scored third of four employees in the first round and that he scored third of five employees in the second. The city advanced two other employees to the permanent jobs.

Personnel records show Ashcraft got a raise in February that put him on par with other supervisors and permanent employees, to $15.03 per hour from $12.48. A notation in the "personnel action" form indicates: "reactivate temporary seasonal employee (with) rate increase."

Juliann Ashcraft's lawyer, Thomas Kelly, questioned whether Ashcraft was being used to meet a federal requirement that hotshot teams have seven permanent employees to be eligible to assist the U.S. Forest Service on wildfires. While the city has said since the fire that there were six permanent employees on the hotshot crews, federal policy requires a seven-member minimum, according to a manual called "Standards for Interagency Hotshot Crew Operations."

"Part of the criteria is that you have seven employees full time," Kelly said, adding that he believes Andrew Ashcraft was the seventh employee.

Records obtained by The Republic show that Prescott officials did list seven permanent employees on a form sent to the state as part of annual checklist, dated April 23, 2013. Ashcraft's name was not on it.

Instead, the seventh permanent name on the list was Christopher MacKenzie, who scored higher than Ashcraft during advancement interviews. MacKenzie also died in the fire. MacKenzie's name is not among the list of the six crew members the city said were eligible for full-time survivor benefits.

Ashcraft's mother and brother launched an Internet campaign last week to bring attention to what they described as the city's "broken promise" to the Ashcraft family.

Included in Ashcroft's personnel file was a comment he added to his application: "I try to excel in everything that I do in life. I will give 100 percent every time and I won't give up."

Tom Ashcraft, father of the killed firefighter, called the struggle over benefits "maddening" and added: "My family is hopeful that Prescott officials are taking notice.''

Contributing: William M. Welch, USA Today

 

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