Wisconsin Firefighter Collects Disability, Runs Triathlons

PHOTO: Milwaukee firefighter, Aaron Marjala, who was declared disabled four years ago, seen above competing in a Wisconsin marathon.
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A Milwaukee firefighter who was declared disabled four years ago and is entitled to $50,000 a year in disability payments is setting off alarms in Wisconsin for his completion of seven marathons and a triathlon.

"The issue is the question of, 'Is this person really disabled?'" said Robert Whitaker, chief of the North Shore fire department, the former employer of Aaron Marjala.

The fire department is angry that Marjala, 31, is continuing to collect insurance and disability pay while being perfectly capable of working. Marjala contends that he's followed all disability laws and can't go back to work as a firefighter.

"I agree I can do another job, and I am," Marjala said.

Marjala, who was put on the permanently disabled list by the fire department doctor in 2007, injured the nerve in his elbow after two incidents in which he banged it against firehouse equipment and then underwent a botched surgery to fix it.

"They told me the nerve was dying and not going to get better," Marjala said. "I was really angry and really hurt."

Two physicians certified that Marjala was not able to fight fires any more, and so the North Shore fire department told Marjala, who had been doing light duty around the firehouse while he recuperated, that it was time to file for disability, he said.

Marjala has since gone back to school for job retraining and gone into business for himself as a home inspector, a job he can succesfully do with his injury, he said. The income is irregular, but Marjala said he's reported all of his income to the state in order to offset the amount of money he collects on disability. He's not yet made enough to totally stop receiving disability payments, but he no longer receives the full amount, he said. The business, which he owns with his wife, does not have its own insurance plan.

The North Shore fire department alleges that Marjala should not be collecting disability anymore, and they should not have to keep covering him under their health insurance policy.

"He's 30," Whitaker said. "We're going to be paying $18,000 to $20,000 a year for his health insurance premium for 30 years. That's quite an exposure."

Both sides agree that bad blood between the department and its former member has been brewing for years. After Marjala was told he could no longer do light duty around the fire house and would have to file for disability, he said he took his anger out on the former chief that told him that.

"I posted some ad on Craigslist with his phone number, an ad for an apartment or something. He got calls and was angry, so I wrote a letter and apologized profusely," Marjala said.

The department contends he went further than that, creating an entire website impersonating the former chief and ruining his reputation.

Marjala was charged with disorderly conduct.

Later, North Shore sent an annual questionnaire to Marjala to inquire about employment, and Marjala responded that he was employed but receiving no income, which fire department officials believe was a lie.

"We dont want the system abused," Whitaker said.

Marjala said he simply wasn't receiving income yet at that point, in September of 2010, and would not have known his revenue until the end of that year.

As for the marathons, Marjola said simply, "I've always run marathons, I grew up doing that. I took time off when I got hurt, but my doctors encouraged me to exercise."

"It wasn't pretty, but I got through the swim. It hurt like crazy after, but I just did it. I didn't take a lot of time to think about how it looked because I didn't do anything wrong," Marjala said.

Neither side is taking legal action against the other, though Whitaker said the fire department is taking their case to policy-makers, hoping to change laws that he claims allow for "fraud in the system."

Marjala hopes to clear his name and get back to business.

"Until all of this my business was growing. I just hope it continues," he said.

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