Taking care of first responders

New bill extends disability and death benefits to some first responders with COVID-19

Under a newly passed state bill, some law enforcement officers and firefighters could qualify for disability benefits if they test positive for COVID-19. Photo by Jen Brown
Under a newly passed state bill, some law enforcement officers and firefighters could qualify for disability benefits if they test positive for COVID-19. Photo by Jen Brown

State legislators unanimously passed a bill this week that will extend eligibility for accidental disability and death benefits to certain first responders who contract COVID-19.

Law enforcement officers, state troopers, firefighters, and emergency medical responders enrolled in one of the three retirement systems associated with these professions are eligible for accidental disability benefits if they sustain a permanent and total disability resulting from a traumatic event that occurred on the job.

Similarly, their named beneficiaries are eligible for accidental death benefits if the first responders lose their lives in the line of duty.

The bill, sponsored by Assembly Democrats Carol Murphy (Burlington), Annette Chaparro, and Raj Mukherji (Hudson) would extend eligibility for these benefits to first responders who become disabled or die as a result of contracting COVID-19.

To qualify, employees would have had to begin showing symptoms within 14 days of interacting with the public or supervising other personnel who interacted with the public in the line of duty during the public health emergency declared by the governor in March.

Proof positive

The bill stipulates that proof that the first responder “more likely than not” contracted the disease in the line of duty would no longer be required, but documentation proving the positive COVID-19 test would be.

Under the measure, new-onset diseases or chronic psychological diseases that may occur in connection to COVID-19 exposure and subsequent recovery would not be considered a permanent and total disability caused by the virus.

The legislation would retroactively cover applicable circumstances that took place between March 9, and the end date of the emergency.

“Our first responders are courageously putting their own lives on the line to keep our communities safe during this crisis,” said Murphy, along with Chaparro and Mukherji in a joint statement. “Every time they respond to distress calls to help prevent unlawful activity, put out fires or administer care to people experiencing medical emergencies, they run the risk of contracting COVID-19 from the very people they’re helping.”

The trio noted that many first responders have already been infected by the virus, which has infected more than 171,928 New Jerseyans, and claimed the lives of roughly 13,224, some of whom were first responders.

“After tragically losing a family member, grieving families should not be expected to somehow prove their loved one most likely contracted the virus on the job,” said the sponsors.

“It is our duty to honor their loved one’s sacrifice by making sure these families receive the  benefits they need without placing the burden of proof on their shoulders … New Jersey owes a debt of gratitude to each and every one of these brave residents protecting our communities under these challenging and unprecedented circumstances. Providing these benefits is one way we can thank them for all they have been doing – and continue to do – for our state.”

For updates on this and other stories check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Marilyn Baer can be reached at Marilynb@hudsonreporter.com.