Updated May 23, 2014 - 5:33 pm
Prescott board awards full benefits to Hotshot family
PHOENIX -- The widow of fallen Granite Mountain Hotshot Andrew Ashcraft, one of the 19 Hotshots who died in last year's Yarnell Hill Fire, will receive full benefits from the city of Prescott after a ruling by an independent board on Thursday morning.
Juliann Ashcraft has been fighting to have her late husband recognized as a full-time employee for nearly a year, and a little over a month before the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, has received the recognition she has been seeking.
"He had earned that spot. He would come home and when he got that promotion he was in tears and said, 'I can finally provide all for our family that I've been fighting to provide,'" Juliann Ashcraft said. "It showed, 'I've done this work, I put in my time, I've mastered my craft and now I'm being compensated for it.'"
Following the deaths of the 19 Hotshots at Yarnell on June 30, 2013, Andrew Ashcraft and 12 others were considered seasonal or part-time workers by the city of Prescott and were therefore not considered eligible for full-time employee benefits.
In the case of Andrew Ashcraft, attorney Pat McGroder, who represents Juliann Ashcraft and her four kids, said the city maintained that Andrew Ashcraft did not meet the criterion for full benefits because of three factors, one of which was that Ashcraft did not meet the definition of being a municipal firefighter.
"The City of Prescott took the position that there was a dichotomy between a municipal structural firefighter and a municipal wildland firefighter because their duties and responsibilities were different," McGroder said. "We rejected that position."
The city also maintained that Andrew Ashcraft was ineligible for full benefits because he had not been working full-time hours and that he had not been regularly exposed to dangerous situations, all of which McGroder said they contested with "overwhelming" evidence of the contrary.
"In 2011 he (Andrew Ashcraft) worked continuously from April to December 31 (and) averaged over 50 hours a week on a 52-week basis," McGroder said. "In 2012, he worked again from the early part of the year through December 31 also averaging, based on 52 weeks, 50 hours a week. In 2013, he worked six months before the tragedy."
Furthermore, McGroder said in February 2013 Andrew Ashcraft had assumed the duties of a senior firefighter and as lead sawyer of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
After a two-day hearing in front of a local board for the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System, which was made up of two firefighters, two civilians appointed from the City Council and Prescott Mayor Marlin Kuykendall, the final vote came down 4 to 1 in favor of Juliann Ashcraft to award her and her family full benefits. The dissenting vote came from Kuykendall.
Juliann Ashcraft said she was grateful and humbled by the decision.
"I knew from day one that this was not handled appropriately," she said. "I knew before he even passed away that he had been erroneously put in the wrong retirement system, but I didn't feel my voice was loud enough."
The decision will bring comfort to her family and help them reflect on what matters most as the first anniversary of her husband's death approaches, Juliann Ashcraft said.
"As far as the benefits issue went, I was nervous how that might cloud my ability to enjoy the anniversary things that are happening," she said. "Now that's out of the way and I feel that my family can just remember their dad (and) remember all of our friends that perished."
The City of Prescott has three options moving forward from the decision, McGroder said. The city can choose to accept the decision by the board and move forward with awarding the full benefits to the Ashcraft family; the city can appeal and have a reconsideration hearing in front of the same board; or the city can appeal in Superior Court.
McGroder said he hopes the city will simply accept the evidence and the decision of the board, but if not, McGroder said he will continue to fight for the Ashcraft family.
"Our hope is that the City of Prescott will let sleeping dogs lie...to let this woman (Julian Ashcraft) and her four children have some peace."
On whether this decision will set a precedent or will encourage the families of the other 12 who were considered part-time or seasonal employees to seek full benefits remains to be seen.
McGroder, who also represents the family of fellow fallen Hotshot William Warneke, only commented that in the case of Andrew Ashcraft the board was thoughtful and analytical about the evidence presented and that they made the right decision.