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Terminated Wauwatosa firefighters still fighting for disability benefits

Tony SanFelippo sits on a Wauwatosa firetruck with his nephew. He was terminated from the department earlier this year and is fighting the city for disability benefits. Photo submitted by Tony SanFelippo.

Tony SanFelippo sits on a Wauwatosa firetruck with his nephew. He was terminated from the department earlier this year and is fighting the city for disability benefits. Photo submitted by Tony SanFelippo.

Aug. 20, 2014

After being terminated in February with chronic lung diseases, two former Wauwatosa firefighters are still fighting the city to get disability benefits from medical conditions they say stemmed from their jobs.

Both Tony SanFelippo and Michel DeLisle say they developed respiratory problems in November 2012, from their duties and vividly remember the days their doctors told them they would never fight another fire.

"I was in denial," DeLisle said. "This is what I do."

SanFelippo and DeLisle each saw multiple doctors before applying for disability benefits from the city, which would pay them partial salaries as required under state statute for those who cannot return to their fields of work because of injuries on the job.

One year and nine months later, they are still locked in legal battles with the city to attain benefits. The city argues the firefighters did not develop their conditions as a direct result of firefighting.

While DeLisle has been waiting for a decision since her final hearing in April, SanFelippo got a decision Aug. 1. He cried and hugged his wife, seeing that the administrative law judge had found in his favor and ordered the city to pay his disability benefits. But shortly after, he found out the city planned to appeal.

Beth Aldana, director of human resources and assistant attorney for the city, said she helped make the decision to appeal the case along with city administration and fire command staff.

"We feel the decision was in error so we're appealing it," Aldana said. "Really it's a continuation of the city's position that this former employee's condition wasn't caused by work."

A doctor brought in by the city said he believed SanFelippo's asthma was caused by an infection not related to his job. But the judge found SanFelippo's doctors to be more "credible and persuasive."

SanFelippo's doctors said he developed irritant-induced asthma from exposure during several jobs as a firefighter, including one at a We Energies plant in November 2012, when he was not wearing a breathing device and was exposed to an F-500 solution considered to be a respiratory irritant.

"It's silly what they're doing, dragging this thing out for as long as they can," SanFelippo said.

For him and DeLisle, it's been a long and bitter wait.

"I held people's hands when they died and thought, if something ever happens to me, the department has my back," DeLisle said. "That could not be farther from the truth."

As the months drag on without the steady paychecks they were used to, both have struggled to hang on to their homes and livelihoods.

"We don't know if we have to put our house up for sale," SanFelippo said. "That's what's scary. I'm trying to live off credit cards and that's not right."

Despite his lung conditions, he and his wife are currently uninsured, with their four-year-old daughter on BadgerCare.

"It's a false sense of security we have," SanFelippo said. "We always think we'll be protected."

DeLisle said her doctor doesn't allow her to work full-time, and it's thanks to a part-time job that she has kept her house so far. But she said she has drained her savings and lapsed on her life insurance coverage.

"We thought we were doing well," DeLisle said. "We planned well."

Although she hasn't felt supported by city officials, she said city firefighters have called her to check in, brought lasagna and shoveled her driveway.

Even if DeLisle receives disability benefits, the job and camaraderie is something she'll continue to miss.

"I can't go to parades," she said. "I can't go to a parade and see a fire truck. I worked really hard to be a firefighter and I miss being part of that team."

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