Politics & Government

Fresno acts to reclassify workers' staph

The Fresno City Council agreed Tuesday that a drug-resistant staph infection afflicting some city firefighters should be considered a work-related injury for firefighters and police officers.

Some firefighters are upset they're forced to pay health insurance co-payments and use their sick time to recover from the infections they believe they contracted at work.

If treated as work-related illness, the city's workers' compensation insurance would cover those bills and pay the firefighters for lost work time.

But City Manager Andy Souza is concerned the city could get stuck footing the entire bill for infections that have nothing to do with firefighters' and police officers' jobs.

The council voted 6-1 to direct city staff to write a policy making all cases of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureaus a work-related illness for firefighters and police officers. The council must approve the policy in a separate vote.

Council Member Brian Calhoun was the dissenting vote Tuesday. He said the city should study the infection more before changing its policy.

Currently, police and firefighters must prove they got the infection while at work. The city has rejected some workers' compensation claims from firefighters, saying they couldn't show they became infected on the job. The new policy will eliminate this burden of proof for firefighters and police officers.

The city considers hepatitis B and tuberculosis work-related injuries for firefighters and police officers.

Staph infections have become an increasing problem for firefighters, police officers, prison inmates and others in the state. The bacteria can spread in settings where people live in close quarters, such as prisons and firehouses, or practice poor hygiene.

The California State Firefighters' Association is pushing legislation that would make the staph infection a workplace injury.

Council Member Jerry Duncan said the city needs its own policy and can't wait for state legislation.

"Our public safety people are looking for our help," said Duncan, who proposed the policy.

Firefighters and police officers are particularly susceptible because they frequently come into contact with the homeless and sick people who need help, Duncan said.

Thirteen Fresno firefighters have filed workers' compensation claims over the infections since 2005, said Jerry Smith, vice president of Fresno Fire Fighters Local 753.

Four firefighters tested positive for the bacteria, according to Terry Bond, Fresno's city personnel services director. Infections in the others had cleared up by the time they were tested, or were found to be the result of something else, Bond has said.

The city paid $11,747 in medical bills while some of the workers' compensation claims were being investigated. But in the end, all workers' compensation claims were denied because the firefighters couldn't prove they were infected on the job, Smith said.

Duncan, however, said it's fair to assume the firefighters were infected at work.

Jacky Parks, president of the Fresno Police Officers Association, said he doesn't know whether any officers have filed workers' compensation claims over the infection.

The infected firefighters are from Station 1 at Olive and Jackson avenues, Station 7 on South Cherry Avenue near Jensen Avenue, and Station 11 on North Fresno Street near Barstow Avenue.

Several firefighters went straight to their doctors to have staph infections treated instead of going to the city's workers' compensation doctors.

Michael Kalina, a 30-year-old firefighter at Station 1, said he was infected with staph in January. He went to his doctor to be diagnosed and treated.

Kalina had to take seven 24-hour shifts off to recover and spent all his sick time. His 2-year-old son, Kennan, also became infected. Kalina said he was infected at his firehouse and passed the bacteria to his son.

If firefighters know treatment of their staph infections will be covered by workers' compensation, they will immediately report any symptoms, Duncan said. This will allow for quicker treatment and reduce the chance that the infection spreads to other firefighter or community members, Duncan added.

The Fire Department is enforcing a cleaning policy -- urging staff to wash their hands, clean equipment and use disinfectant wipes -- in an effort to prevent infections.