Milford firefighter fired after nine-month absence

“This is my last day of being a firefighter,” Raul (Rico) Benavides-Espinal said shortly after he was fired Tuesday night from his job as a Milford firefighter.

The Milford Fire Commission voted unanimously to terminate his job after a lengthy recap of the more than nine months he was absent, and the communication that went on during that time among himself, fire officials, the city attorney’s office and human resources.

While Benavides-Espinal and his attorney said he was in fairly regular contact with fire officials about the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) he suffers, city officials, including the human resources director, argued that he did not respond in recent months for documentation requests and that his extended absences represented abandonment of the job.

A police officer stood just outside the room in case there was trouble as the discussion and vote took place.

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, while getting paid through sick time.

Benavides-Espinal suffers from PTSD starting when he was in the Navy from 2004 to 2007, and exacerbated during his course of work as a firefighter, argued his attorney, Daniel P. Hunsberger with Maurer & Associates PC in Ridgefield.

But it was not until December of 2018, after he had left the Navy and was already working for the Milford Fire Department, that Benavides-Espinal was diagnosed with PTSD, his attorney said.

Fire Commissioner William Brennan asked Benavides-Espinal why he became a firefighter if he had problems in the Navy, to which Benavides-Espinal responded that he became a firefighter in memory of fellow sailor Sevy Romain, who died aboard ship in 2005 during a training exercise.

“He made the ultimate sacrifice,” Benavides-Espinal said after the hearing. “He was a damage controlman, which is basically a firefighter. He lost his life trying to save people.”

It may have been his friend’s death and other incidents in the Navy that started the PTSD, the firefighter said, adding that he is being treated for the condition.

The city stopped paying Benavides-Espinal through sick time on May 3, and the city filed Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) paperwork on his behalf to secure his job for 12 more weeks. He was notified later that the commission would be discussing his termination.

Benavides-Espinal’s attorney argued that “past practice” had been for virtually unlimited sick time, but Assistant City Attorney Debra Kelly countered that.

According to the firefighters’ 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. Fire officials also said Benavides-Espinal did not make any indication that his medical problems were connected to his job as a firefighter until he filed a Workers Compensation claim on June 11 of this year.

Hunsberger also argued 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 Kelly and Battalion Chief Anthony Fabrizi made it clear during Tuesday’s hearing that Benavides-Espinal had been informed of and referred to the program, which is available to all firefighters who have difficulty dealing with the stresses of the job.

Fabrizi said the department has tried to help Benavides-Espinal, and Kelly said that the chief’s waiting nine months to begin termination proceedings was also a matter of courtesy. She noted earlier that even before the firefighter’s nine-month absence, his absences were “significant.”

Kelly said the firefighters’ 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. She also argued that 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, but he did not respond to her until after his pay had stopped.

Jeff Luciano, Milford Professional Firefighters Local 944 president, said, “The union is never happy to see a member terminated.”

But as to whether the commission was justified in supporting the termination, Luciano said he could not comment because the union wasn’t privy to all the information that city officials and the attorney had.

Luciano said the next step, if Benavides-Espinal chooses, will be for the union to file an appeal with the state Board of Mediation and Arbitration on his behalf.

Benavides-Espinal did not say Tuesday night if he will be appealing the decision, but he did say he wants to continue to be a firefighter.

“The job,” he said, “is all about people willing to sacrifice their life for someone else.”

Benavides-Espinal is the second Milford firefighter to be fired in many years. Last April, Milford firefighter Matthew LaVecchia, assistant superintendent of apparatus, was fired from the department after his arrest in connection to an alleged bar fight downtown. He is on trial for that incident at state Superior Court in Milford.