Unemployed Volunteer Firefighter Denied TD Benefits

In what some may view as insult added to injury, an unemployed New Jersey firefighter, who sustained significant injuries to her leg when she slipped and fell on ice as she and others fought a multi-alarm file, does not qualify for temporary disability benefits, held a state appellate court; she had no lost wages [see Kocanowski v. Township of Bridgewater, 2017 N.J. Super. LEXIS 171 (Dec. 11, 2017). With its decision, the Court affirmed a workers’ compensation judge’s finding that the firefighter’s volunteer work was “laudable” and entitled her to both medical treatment and permanent disability for her injuries, she did not qualify for temporary disability payments.

Background

Two years prior to the firefighting incident that caused her injury, Kocanowski, who had been a volunteer firefighter for 14 years, stopped working to help her ailing father, who then passed away. Following her father’s death, Kocanowski did not see work, although in the past she had worked as a nanny and certified health aide. In July 2014, after caring for her father, she returned to volunteer firefighting and suffered her injury on March 6, 2015.

Temporary Disability Benefits Are Substitute for Loss of Current Wages

The appellate court stressed that TD benefits are intended to be a partial substitute for a loss of current wages. Accordingly, actual absence from work is a prerequisite to a TD award. The Court added that Kocanowski’s claim was not only at odds with the underlying reason for awarding temporary disability—replacing lost wages—it was also at odds with the method for calculating temporary disability, which was to consider weekly wages. When the legislature enacted the provisions that addressed firefighters and others, it did not make any special provisions for calculating TD in a different way. The Court concluded that, indeed, the case law was clear that where there are no wages lost, the payment of temporary disability would be considered a windfall.

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