A former Wisconsin firefighter gets paid $50,000 a year to stay home. He doesn’t have to pay taxes, his health insurance is free and he never has to work again if he doesn’t want to. But he’s fit enough to run an Ironman event.
Aaron Marjala completed the 2010 Madison Ironman triathlon in 12 hours, 24 minutes. But according to the state of Wisconsin, he is not fit for duty. An Ironman triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run.
“I can’t raise a ladder. There’s stuff I can’t do. I have minor limitations, but it doesn’t stop me from getting out and enjoying stuff like this,” said Marjala.
Marjala has completed at least seven marathons and one triathlon — all after the state declared him to be “permanently disabled” from performing his duties as a Wisconsin firefighter.
Duty disability is a system set up to protect police officers and firefighters from the inherent dangers of their profession. But for Marjala, the injury that sidelined him didn’t happen at a fire scene.
In 2006, he bumped his elbow on a kitchen countertop at the firehouse, causing numbness in his pinky finger. Eight months later, he bumped the same elbow on a ladder, doing further damage to his ulnar nerve (better known as the funny bone).
As Marjala recovered from surgery, the fire department temporarily put him on “light duty” as a fire inspector. But when he still wasn’t medically-cleared for full duty after a year, North Shore Fire Chief Robert Whitaker says the department gave him a choice.
“You can apply for disability. You can find another job,” said Whitaker.
So at the age of 28, Marjala became one of the youngest firefighters in the state to start collecting duty disability; a benefit he’s eligible to receive for life.
Exactly how much the state is paying Marjala is unclear. State law prohibits the Department of Employee Trust Funds from releasing information about individuals.
Marjala declined to provide the records himself. But in divorce records on file, he lists an income of $4,200 a month – all from disability. That’s more than $50,000 a year tax free.
The North Shore Fire Department is still on the hook for Marjala’s health insurance at a cost of nearly $20,000 a year.
The North Shore fire chief says the Marjala situation is frustrating. But when Marjala applied for duty disability, he got the approval of not just one doctor, but two. The fire department did not object.
In the city of Milwaukee, which has its own retirement system, duty disability recipients are required to undergo an annual medical evaluation. While it’s rare, Fox News found 3 disabled Milwaukee firefighters or police officers have been returned to duty since 2007.
By contract, the state retirement system requires no medical checkups.
For his part, Marjala has offered to come back to work. “I offered to do any of the jobs that they wanted to do. I wrote ’em a letter last year and said, ‘is there anything you can get me doing?'” said Marjala. The North Shore Fire Department turned him down.
Aaron Marjala logged his personal exercise on a website called Daily Mile, where he talked about running, swimming and biking. He even bragged about teaching a spin class.
Since the Fox News story aired, it seems Marjala shut down his Daily Mile account, and no longer runs in a nearby public park.