New Firefighters, Lifeguards Without Defined Death Benefits

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    NEWSLETTERS

    The city of San Diego currently has no defined death and disability benefits for nearly 100 firefighters and lifeguards hired under the new 401K system approved by voters last year. NBC 7 Investigates reporter Wendy Fry has details.

    Fighting fires is hard, heroic and dangerous work.

    Typically, firefighters' pensions allow for death benefits to their families should a tragedy occur.

    When voters approved Proposition B, known as pension reform, city officials vowed that firefighters would never face the situation of being without that benefit.

    But today, new firefighter Hobie Porterfield worries about his son and wife should something happen to him while he's on duty. That's because there's no clear structure for paying out death or disability benefits post Proposition B.

    11-year-old Cade, his son, is the face Porterfield sees moments before he enters any dangerous situation as a firefighter.

    "That's your thought when it gets down to being on line," Porterfield said. "First thoughts family and then you got to think, Ok. I've got a job to do and I've got to do the job."

    NBC 7 Investigates spoke with Porterfield Monday morning about his understanding of what would happen if he were to die in the line of duty.

    The city has no new insurance policies taken out to provide death or disability benefits to firefighters hired after the city passed comprehensive pension reform.

    Several key city officials told NBC 7 Investigates the money to pay out death and disability benefits for new-hires would come out of the General Fund, as opposed to previously coming out of SDCERS money. They also say they are waiting to address situation after a final determination on Proposition B's legality

    City officials also say they know they are obligated to pay a death benefit, but no one knows what that check would look like, or how it would be paid out.

    "It's a big, big issue," Porterfield said. "It's something that's pretty hard not to think about whenever we're putting our lives on the line for other people."

    This wasn't always the case.

    In June 2012, voters approved Proposition B, which meant new city hires said goodbye to pensions and hello to 401K defined contribution plans, which are more like retirement plans for private sector employees.

    What was also taken off the table were death and disability benefits with the voter-directed mandated that the city would negotiate with labor unions to put those protections back into place.

    "Well, now we're finding whether it's Bob Filner getting a pension after being convicted of a felony or lifeguards and firefighters not getting death and disability coverage that city leaders have dropped the ball," said former councilman Carl DeMaio, who wrote Prop. B. "They're not doing what the voters clearly said they wanted done."

    Before June 2012, Councilman Kevin Faulconer, a candidate for mayor, and former Mayor Jerry Sanders had an alternate plan that kept firefighter's death benefits intact.

    They compromised with Carl DeMaio, but vowed firefighters would never be in this situation.

    Faulconer says fixing this is a top priority.

    "Providing death and disability benefits for firefighters and lifeguards who put their lives on the line is simply the right thing to do," Faulconer said. "That's why I fought to include it in the Comprehensive Pension Reform ballot initiative, and why I will work to implement it as mayor."

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