2018 has been the deadliest year on record for California wildfires. More than 100 people have died between the Camp Fire in northern California and the Woolsey Fire that raged across Los Angeles and Ventura Counties this fall. Over 1.6 million acres of land burned, and the state of California spent $773 million on resources to battle the blazes.
Unfortunately, around 1,500 of the brave firefighters who put their lives on the line were paid only a fraction of minimum wage. These individuals were prisoners who were deployed to help civilian firefighters control the deadly California wildfires. The inmates are part of the Conservation Camp Program, which is run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). The purpose of the program is to support state, local, and federal government agencies as they respond to emergencies, such as fires and floods.
Inmate firefighters are more likely to get hurt
There are approximately 3,700 inmates working at a total of 44 conservation camps across California. The inmates receive the same training that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) seasonal firefighters receive, and they encounter the same workplace safety hazards. They’re also at a higher risk for injury.
Inmate firefighters are more than four times as likely, per capita, to suffer injuries as professional firefighters working on the same fires. They are also eight times as likely to suffer smoke inhalation injuries compared with other firefighters.
Despite this, inmates in the Conservation Camp Program are only paid $2 per day for their sacrifice and hard work. During an active fire, prisoners work 24-hour shifts and make an additional $1 per hour. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, civilian firefighters make $73,860 per year plus benefits while working the same shifts.
California minimum wage laws
In 2018, the statewide minimum wage laws in California are $10.50 per hour for organizations with 26 or more employees and $10.00 per hour for those with 25 or fewer employees. These rates will increase to $12 per hour and $11 per hour on January 1, 2019, respectively. Prisoners are excluded from certain legal protections civilian workers enjoy, including minimum wage laws. In many parts of the country, inmates also give up their right to workers’ compensation if they get hurt fighting fires or performing other job duties. Luckily, in California, prisoners are granted medical treatment and disability benefits as long as the injury aligns with the basic requirements of any workers’ compensation claim.
Workers’ compensation for California inmates
While inmates are not covered by minimum wage laws, they can file for workers’ compensation if they get injured on the job. In order to qualify, the injury must have:
Been caused by duties related to the inmate’s work
Happened during the course of employment
Not been self-inflicted
Not been caused by an illegal act
Not been caused by a fight provoked by the inmate
Not have occurred while the inmate was under the influence of drugs or alcohol
Once a claim is accepted, an inmate’s medical treatment will be covered under workers’ compensation. Disability benefits are calculated based on an inmate’s anticipated future earning capacity. These benefits are paid when a prisoner is released from a correctional facility and rejoins the community.
California inmates have a right to workers’ compensation
More than 1,000 inmate firefighters required hospital care in the last five years – and that’s not even including data from the latest California wildfires. These individuals who put their health and lives on the line may not be covered by minimum wage laws, but they have the right to protection against injuries sustained on the job. At the Law Office of Gerald Brody & Associates, our workers’ compensation attorneys fight on behalf of all injured workers – including prisoners. If you or a loved one has been injured in the Camp Fire or Woolsey Fire, please contact us for a free consultation.
Call us today at 619-528-9800.