Law enforcement, firefighters and other first responders are raising alarms about the unique threat posed by the novel coronavirus to their health — and the need to protect personnel who get sick.
Some states have changed regulations to provide swifter access to workers’ compensation coverage for essential workers in the community during the coronavirus pandemic. These employee- funded benefits can cover lost wages, additional sick leave, job protections and death benefits.
Not yet in California, where lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom have not taken up the issue, leaving each claim to be evaluated on a case- by-case by employers and insurance carriers.
Nine Santa Rosa police officers and one Sonoma County sheriff’s lieutenant have so far tested positive for the coronavirus, including longtime Santa Rosa Detective Marylou Armer, who died March 31 of complications from COVID-19, a respiratory disease caused by the disease. One Santa Rosa firefighter has tested positive for the virus.
The state must act — and soon — to assure these front-line workers don’t have to worry about lost wages, benefits and time away from work if they get sick, said Stephen Bussell, president of the Santa Rosa Police Officers’ Association.
“We definitely have a higher risk level than the general public,” Bussell said.
Employees seeking workers’ compensation generally must prove they acquired the illness or got hurt on the job in order for their claims to be approved.
There are exceptions for law enforcement and firefighters in California. State law provides automatic workers’ compensation eligibility if they get diseases like tuberculosis, cancer and pneumonia.
Those are just some of the ailments on a list of conditions that, if acquired while employed, allow police and firefighters to receive workers’ compensation benefits without having to document where they got sick or injured. Last year, that list was expanded to include post-traumatic stress syndrome, a change made to acknowledge the heavy and growing toll of wildfires.
“That gets them treatment and paid time-off faster,” said Laura Rosenthal, a Santa Rosa attorney who specializes in workers’ comp claims for law enforcement.
As a new disease, COVID-19 is not included on the list of conditions that make it easier for police officers and firefighters to file a workers’ comp claim.
But those employees who develop pneumonia while battling COVID-19 may have an easier time accessing workers’ compensation benefits because the lung infection is part of the state exemption, Rosenthal said.
No such protections for any workplace-acquired diseases or injuries exist yet for nurses or health care workers. Rosenthal said she hopes the pandemic pushes the state to consider adding protections for health care workers.
“You have law enforcement transporting an individual with a staph infection to the hospital, and he’s covered if he gets it,” Rosenthal said. “But the minute you drop them off at hospital, the workers there don’t get the same protection.”
Bussell said the Santa Rosa Police Department has so far been supportive of employees with coronavirus who are filing workers’ compensation claims, but it’s no easy task to document where they got it. Officers are in the community on patrol and various assignments, they often take individuals to hospitals and are in a variety of settings where they may come in close contact with people carrying the virus.
“Right now we’re doing our best to document exposures. It’s challenging to document it and be accurate,” Bussell said. “But the likelihood that it happened at work is greater than not.”