Firefighter’s termination goes before commission this week
The Milford Fire Commission on July 23 is scheduled to discuss termination of a firefighter whose lawyer says suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder originating during his military service and worsened during the course of his work as a firefighter.
The Milford Fire Commission last month tabled discussion about firing Milford firefighter Raul (Rico) Benavides-Espinal until his newly hired lawyer could gather information about the case, and on July 16 voted to table it again for a special meeting July 23 to give the commission a week to review information.
Fire Chief Douglas Edo recommended firing Benavides-Espinal, who was hired in August 2012, because he was out of work about nine months, starting Aug. 2, 2018, and getting paid through sick time.
Benavides-Espinal’s attorney, Daniel P. Hunsberger with Maurer & Associates PC in Ridgefield, presented facts, mixed with an emotional plea for his client July 16 when he discussed the matter, which he insisted be aired in a public forum rather than executive session as planned.
Hunsberger said Benavides-Espinal was in the Navy from 2004 to 2007, and it was during that time his experiences led to post-traumatic stress disorder, but it wasn’t diagnosed until later — December 2018.
Benavides-Espinal was already working as a Milford firefighter, and Hunsberger said motor vehicle accidents and other scenes a firefighter encounters in the course of his work exacerbated the PTSD.
“As a result of several incidents that he witnessed and was a party to here as a firefighter, it escalated the PTSD, and as a result he started to drink and started to cope with it in ways he shouldn’t have,” Hunsberger said.
“He has advised the chief all the way along, up until at least April of this year that he was out with mental health issues and suffers from PTSD,” Hunsberger said.
The city stopped paying Benavides-Espinal through sick time on May 3, and his lawyer said that made the PTSD worse.
And on May 21, when Benavides-Espinal returned to work unannounced with a doctor’s note saying he could return to light duty, a subsequent conversation with Battalion Chief Anthony Fabrizzi led to police being called, which aggravated the PTSD more, Hunsberger said.
“For the last 10 weeks, he’s had no finances on which to live,” Hunsberger said. “He’s going to be thrown out of his apartment in 14 days and why? He worked for this department, he suffered PTSD as a result of what he had in the military and what he had in incidents within this department.”
Fire officials and Benavides-Espinal differ somewhat on what led to police being called the day he returned to work. While fire officials say Benavides-Espinal talked about suicide, which protocol demands calling police, Benavides-Espinal said during the recent commission meeting that he talked about having thoughts of suicide in the past.
“I never said I was going to harm myself,” Benavides-Espinal said, adding, “I was emotional that day.”
Hunsberger said the fire department has some culpability in the level of PTSD Benavides-Espinal has today, which will require more intense therapy. He said the city wanted Rico to fill out Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) paperwork, and suggested the termination was due to the fact that Rico did not fill it out.
The attorney also argued that “past practice” has been for virtually unlimited sick time.
Hunsberger also said that while there may have been an informal referral to counseling through an Employee Assistance Program, that should have been formal, especially if the department planned to fire Benavides-Espinal.
But even before the firefighter’s nine-month absence, his absences were “significant,” Assistant City Attorney Debra Kelly told the commission during its meeting July 16.
According to the firefighter’s contract, if an employee is on a job connected or compensable injury leave for nine months or more, the city can petition the Pension and Retirement Board for the firefighter’s retirement.
But Kelly said Benavides-Espinal does not have enough years with the department to make him eligible to retire.
Kelly said the firefighter’s contract does not state there is unlimited sick time, but it does state the chief can take action if a firefighter is abusing sick time.
Milford Human Resources Director Tania Barnes tried several times to talk to Benavides-Espinal about what steps he should take in regard to his job, Kelly said, adding that Barnes sent him three letters.
“He did not respond to any of them,” Kelly said.
It wasn’t until after the city stopped paying him May 3 that Benavides-Espinal contacted Barnes, who told him what his options were, but “he took no steps,” Kelly added.
Fire Commissioner Howard Stein questioned Benavides-Espinal’s lawyer on a number of issues, and asked, “Should the taxpayers carry him indefinitely?”
Hunsberger didn’t answer immediately, but later said his client should be compensated because he was serving his country and then the City of Milford. Arguing that it was “use of sick leave rather than abuse of sick leave,” Hunsberger, who has also filed a grievance over the termination of his client’s pay, said he hopes his client won’t be terminated, that his pay will be restored retroactively, and that he will be allowed to return to work when he is well enough to do so.
The special meeting is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. July 23 at fire headquarters.