Should COVID-19-related deaths of first responders be classified “in the line of duty” deaths?
Yes, say some local officials, backed by some state and U.S. representatives.
Passaic firefighter Israel Tolentino was 31 when he died on March 31. It was the first COVID-19-related death of a first responder in the state. Paterson Police Officer Frank Scorpo, 34, died soon after, also due to complications from the novel virus.
Shortly after Tolentino’s death, Passaic Mayor Hector Lora started to reach out to state and US representatives. He wants the families of first responders who die from COVID-19 to be financially compensated as they would be under in the line of duty death standards.
“I don’t want the families to have to wait around for years,” Lora said of first responder’s families. He said Tolentino, who also served the city as an EMT with St. Clare’s Hospital, left behind two young children and a wife. His family should not suffer because he worked during a pandemic, the mayor said.
What does it mean
So, what does declaring the deaths “in the line of duty” mean for the first responders and their families?
Without the designation, the family or survivors of a first responder will receive a life insurance payoff in the amount of three and a half times the salary of the last year worked. A yearly salary of $40,000 would mean a one-time payoff of 140,000. There are no health benefits included for the surviving spouse or partner and no college funds for surviving children.
That’s not enough, said Paterson Director of Public Safety Jerry Speziale.
Officer Scopo, Speziale said, was a popular traffic officer who died after contracting COVID-19. He was on the lower end of the salary scale and leaves behind two very young children and a wife.
“Forget about putting them through college, that’s not going to put them through grade school,” Speziale said of the payoff if the virus deaths are not re-classified.
Currently, firefighter and police officers must die of a work-related cause to be considered “in the line of duty death.”
If the death is deemed to be an in the line of duty, the surviving spouse or partner will receive, for their lifetime, “70% (of the salary) and free healthcare for widow and dependents from the state of New Jersey,” the Passaic Fire Chief pat Trentacost.
Surviving children’s post-secondary education costs at a state college will also be covered.
Currently, the survivors must prove the first responder “more likely than not” contracted COVID-19 while on duty, officials said, for the death to be “in the line of duty.” The elected officials are looking to take out the burden of proof by survivors and make it automatically in the line of duty death.
“Tell me when this guy wasn’t on duty,” Lora said, said of Tolentino.
Tolentino’s family, as it currently stands, will receive three and a half times his salary as part of the life insurance policy.
Paramus Police Chief Ken Ehrenberg said when survivors apply to have the death of the first responder considered “in the line of duty,” their department can either support the claim or oppose it.
The department’s insurance company also gets involved in the final determination, but the state pension board has the final say, officials said.
Speziale said officers and firefighters accept there will be a certain amount of danger when going through the training academy, “however, this is a situation like no other…In my 37 years, it has never been discussed.”
Bergen County Sheriff Anthony Cureton said he fully supports treating the COVID-19-related deaths of first responders as in the line of duty.
He equated it to the officers, firefighters and EMTs who responded to the World Trade Center site on 9/11 in the recovery efforts, then suffered from chronic diseases for years after.
“These are once-in-a-lifetime events, so I would say the uniqueness of this warrants it,” he said, adding that officers and their families should get the recognition they deserve.
“I think it’s reasonable, no ifs, ands or buts,” said Ehrenberg. “If you’re exposed, it’s presumptive you got it on the job. So I’m supportive.”
Lora noted that if state and the federal governments pass legislation it will go a long way to “keep first responders’ families whole.”
Other efforts for first responders
Democratic Congressman Bill Pascrell who represents the state’s 9th District supports Lora and along with two Democratic representatives from New York has introduced the Public Safety Officer Pandemic Response Act of 2020. It’s different from in the line of duty deaths but also seeks to compensate survivors of first responders who die due to the novel coronavirus.
Pascrell, who co-chairs the Congressional Law Enforcement Caucus and Fire Services Caucus introduced Response Act with New York 10th District Democrat and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler and Democrat for New York’s 11th District Rep. Max Rose.
This legislation would expand an existing federal program to ensure that public safety officers who contract COVID-19 in the line of duty are eligible for benefits should they become disabled or die from the virus.
“Our heroes deserve the peace of mind that their loved ones will be eligible for support,” Pascrell said.
If approved, the act would make the families of the first responders eligible for a one-time payment of $365,000.
New Jersey Assemblyman Gary Schaer, also Passaic City Council president, said he is sympathetic to the plight of the first responders and their families.
“There’s no doubt that this has struck a chord,” Schaer said. “It is the right thing to do.”
Democratic senator from New Jersey since 2013, Cory Booker has crossed the aisle to work with Republican Senator Chuck Grassley on the issue, said his spokesman Thomas Pietrykoski.
“Our firefighters, EMTs, and police officers have enough to worry about,” Pietrykoski said, “and shouldn’t have to question whether our country will be there for their families.”
As for Tolentino, his family is now also dealing with the death of the firefighter’s father, also from complications from COVID-19 hit.