Widow of Granite Mountain Hotshot talks about dispute over survivor benefits

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PRESCOTT, Ariz. -- Juliann Ashcraft, the widow of Granite Mountain Hotshot crew member Andrew Ashcraft, hosted a news conference Wednesday morning to address her dispute with the city over her husband's classification as a seasonal employee and the benefits her family receives in the wake of his death.

Andrew Ashcraft is one of 13 employees considered seasonal or temporary employees. Only six of the 19 firefighters killed on June 30 while battling the Yarnell Hill Fire were classified as full-time permanent employees of the city. The classification as temporary or permanent makes a major difference in the survivor benefits the families receive.

Ashcraft, the mother of four young children, was straightforward in her comments and pulled no punches.

"My husband, Andrew, worked for the city of Prescott," she said. "He was a full-time employee. He worked full-time hours. He had a full-time responsibility. He had a full-time salary. There is no way that I can fathom how the city is justifying him as seasonal or part time."

Deborah Pfingston, Andrew Ashcraft's mother, and Juliann Ashcraft say Prescott city officials promised they would retroactively reclassify the seasonal, temporary employees, including Ashcraft, as permanent so the families could receive additional survivor benefits.

The city maintains that it cannot legally posthumously reclassify the men as full-time employees so their families can receive additional benefits, including health insurance.

City officials say that their hands are tied, saying the issue is with the pension fund and how it was set up. The Ashcraft family believes those officials could do something if they wanted to.

"It's sad that I have to even stand here today and fight for what my husband already earned," she said, fighting back tears. "It's sad that there are 12 other families that aren't being given what their brother or their husband ... earned. It is a terrible tragedy, and the bigger tragedy is in the fact that the people who can make it right aren't making it right."

"I am disappointed in the decision not to pay Andrew and Juliann's benefits," Andrew Ashcraft's father, Tom, told 3TV's Natalie Brand shortly after the news conference.

Tom Ashcraft posted a petition on Chang.org in order to "enforce the prompt processing of his [Andrew's] benefits."

"It is not only our family's belief, but our community, as well as many around this great nation that the City of Prescott, specifically the Mayor and City Council, should immediately approve Andrew Ashcraft's benefits that will provide a secure future for his wife Juliann, Ryder (6), Shiloh (4), Tate (3), and Choice (18 mo)," the petition reads.

According to the city, paperwork shows that Andrew Ashcraft was a temporary employee even though he worked full-time hours and earned a full-time salary.

"I say to the city that that is not accurate at all," Tom Ashcraft told Brand. "They may be leaning on a technicality. ... Those people that were on that fire worked full time on that fire. They didn't say, 'Hey, wait. I'm part time. I've gotta come back tomorrow. ...' From that standpoint, every one of those men was full time."

Ashcraft said she has had "run-ins" with a variety of city officials over the issue of her husband's employment status and benefits attached to it.

"The mayor is the ringleader as far as I'm concerned," she said, describing him as "unprofessional and rude."

"He has been horrific. ... He's been uncompassionate," she continued. "He has mistreated people .... The mayor is the first person that I have major concerns with."

Ashcraft also said she's had difficulties with the city manager, as well as people in the city's human resources department.

While calling out Mayor Marlin Kuykendall, Ashcraft did not single out any members of the City Council.

"I don't want to make a blanket statement about the Council because I feel that they don't necessarily have all of the information that they need to be able to help us because they're working under the voice and the direction of the mayor," Ashcraft explained.

"The records are what they are," said Mayor Kuykendall on Wednesday.  "My door is open seven days a week."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.