Regina firefighters blocked from covering shifts for co-worker battling cancer

Regina firefighters have been picking up shifts for Tanner Brotzel, who was diagnosed with cancer; but now management is no longer approving requests to cover his shifts.

Fire chief says long-term benefit plan is better for Tanner Brotzel, who is battling Hodgkin's lymphoma

Firefighters have been told they can no longer cover shifts for Tanner Brotzel, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in December. (Tanner Brotzel/Facebook)

For the past seven months, Regina firefighters have been picking up shifts for one of their crew mates unable to work while he's treated for Hodgkin's lymphoma. 

But that ended last week.

The fire chief informed crews that any replacement requests for Tanner Brotzel's shifts will no longer be approved.

"A guy that I started with 32 years ago said that this is the first time he's been embarrassed to say that he's a firefighter, because of this action," said Brian Seidlik, Brotzel's platoon captain and the president of the Regina Professional Firefighters Association.

A clause in the collective agreement allows firefighters to cover shifts on their days off for other crew mates if both employees agree and the fire chief approves it.

Firefighters band together

Brian Seidlik is president of the Regina Professional Firefighters Association; he has helped to make sure Tanner Brotzel's shifts are covered during his cancer treatment. (CBC)
Firefighters in Regina have been covering for Brotzel since December, when he was first diagnosed. 

It allows Brotzel to continue to receive his full pay while he undergoes chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

Last week, Brotzel told CBC News, "It was unbelievable. I don't know if I'll ever be able to make it up to everybody."

A few days later, firefighters were notified that "applications for leave of absence (with pay) for replacement for Fire Fighter Tanner Brotzel shall not be approved. This directive is effective immediately."

When CBC spoke to Fire Chief Ernie Polsom, he said the decision was made because there are benefits that exist to serve the employee in these situations.

Fire chief says long-term disability benefits more helpful

Ernie Polsom, the fire chief for Regina, says it's more helpful for Tanner Brotzel in the long run if he accesses the city's health benefits rather than having co-workers cover his shifts.

Polsom said accessing long-term disability benefits will be more helpful to Brotzel.

"The city's got comprehensive health benefits, that's negotiated collaboratively with its unions that cover for employees facing significant health challenges. And we're just making sure [Brotzel] has access to these and is using them to their fullest," he said.

The firefighters started covering Brotzel's shifts because he had less than a month of combined vacation and sick days.

Seidlik said it would have taken months before Brotzel's long-term disability benefits kicked in, and that meant time with no pay.

He also pointed out that when an employee accesses the long-term disability pay, he or she only gets 65 per cent of their wage, and any additional benefits have to be covered by the employee.

Polsom explained that long-term disability is agreed upon in the contract by the union and the employer during collective bargaining.

"There's a means of negotiating and if they're not satisfied with that then I would suggest that's something to bring up for future bargaining," said Polsom.

There's a means of negotiating and if they're not satisfied with that then I would suggest that's something to bring up for future bargaining.-  Ernie Polsom, Regina Fire Chief

Polsom said that in Brotzel's case, long-term disability provides for a broader range of benefits than just wage replacement, and there are specific limitations on the application period.

If Brotzel doesn't apply for the long-term disability, it could mean he's unable to access the same benefits, potentially affecting him if his treatment fails, and he needs support again later on. 

Replacement clause not a long-term solution, says chief

Tanner Brotzel has begun his application for long-term disability benefits as he gets ready to begin radiation treatments. (Tanner Brotzel/Facebook)
Polsom also said the replacement clause was never intended to be a long-term solution; it was instead meant for short-term fixes.

Seidlik said that's not written in the contract and is therefore not a valid argument.

"There is no stipulations on how many days someone can have a replacement. All there is is a clause in the contract that says if the chief deems this abuse, he can deny access to this," said Seidlik,

"And how is this abuse, really and truly?" he said.

There is no stipulations on how many days someone can have a replacement.- Brian Seidlik, president. Regina Professional Firefighters Association

Seidlik has been in touch with Brotzel and said he's stressed out by the situation. Brotzel is in the process of filing for the long-term disability benefits.

Now that Brotzel's chemotherapy is finished, Seidlik said Brotzel plans on returning to work on light duties in a few weeks, so that he can continue to receive his wages.

With files from the CBC's Roxanna Woloshyn and Adrian Cheung