COVID Line-of-Duty Death-Benefit Bill Gets Cuomo's Endorsement

Originally published in The Chief Leader on May 29, 2020.

Five days after Governor Cuomo endorsed a line-of-duty death benefit for both civilian public employees and uniformed first-responders if they succumbed to COVID-19, he gave final approval May 30 after the bill's swift passage by the State Senate and Assembly.

Mayor de Blasio previously endorsed the measure, which requires passage by the State Assembly and Senate and the Governor's signature.

Mounting Worker Toll

In the city, the outbreak's epicenter, 277 municipal workers had died from COVID19.

Mr. Cuomo, during a Memorial Day commemoration aboard the U.S.S. Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, said he felt "a grave responsibility" to "front-line workers... who understood the dangers of this COVID virus but went to work anyway because we needed them to.... And many of those people who showed up and did their duty and served with honor lost their lives to keep others of us safe."

He continued, "But as John F. Kennedy said, 'Remember with your actions.' ...we're going to make sure that every government in the State of New York provides death benefits to those public heroes who died from COVID-19 during this emergency."

He also cited the service of essential workers in the private sector during the pandemic and reiterated his call for the Federal Government to provide all essential workers a hazard-pay premium. He said it was a tangible "way of showing Americans that when there is a next time—and there [will be] a next time—that we truly appreciate those people who show up and do their duty."

'They Deserve This'

New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, whose office has to provide an actuarial review of the line-of-duty legislation, supports it, saying in a statement, "Government workers are on the front lines fighting the coronavirus and providing essential services. If something happens to them, they deserve their retirement benefits and the peace of mind that their families are provided for during this difficult time."

In a phone interview, Assemblyman Peter Abbate, the chair of the Assembly Committee on Government Employees, said under his death-benefit proposal for the first time city Emergency Medical Technicians would be granted the same death benefit awarded to cops and firefighters.

He added, "Civilian public-employee families will get 50 percent of their pension for their beneficiaries, instead of what it had been: just the last three years of their salary. So, Transport Workers Union, teachers, all of those civilian public workers who died, their families will get 50 percent of their pension."

State Sen. Andrew Gounardes, chair of the Civil Service and Pensions Committee, introduced the companion legislation in the Legislature's upper house. He said in a statement, "It's so important that we pass this line-of-duty benefits bill on behalf of all the public servants who protected this city from the pandemic, and their families."

'Another Step Forward'

Oren Barzilay, president of EMS Local 2507 of District Council 37, which represents EMTs and Fire Prevention Inspectors and has lost six members to COVID-19, said of the linked bills, "It is the first time we are being included with the other first-responders and have matching benefits, which in the long run shows how we are looked at as a uniformed service. It is another step forward, acknowledging us for what we really do and the risks we take."

Mr. Abbate said he was "very much concerned" about the fate of private-sector employees who continued working during the state of emergency, but said his committee lacked jurisdiction over them.

"If you were a nurse at a public hospital, you are going to be covered by my legislation. But if you worked at Maimonides Hospital or at NYU, you are not, and I feel horrible for them," he said. "We are trying to figure out what we can do...I am sure my colleagues on the Labor Committee are trying to do something about that."

He said the death benefit was just one facet of what's going to be required from Albany.

Court Officer's Plight

"The papers today, we have reports on a court officer who had complications after he came off of a ventilator, and his arm had to be amputated," Assemblyman Abbate said. "Now, do you get a partial disability? What happens with your health insurance?"

He went on, "That is going to be a major factor, and it's basically why we are looking to the Federal Government, like we did with the 9/11 bill after we did the city and state pensions bills. We needed something like the Zadroga Act out of Washington to take care of the long-term health needs."

Earlier this month New York Democratic U.S. Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn B. Maloney and their Republican colleague Peter King briefed reporters on their Pandemic Heroes Compensation Act, modeled on the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund.

Across the country, there have been multiple reports about health care, public safety, transit, postal and food-service and distribution workers succumbing to COVID19.

The Pandemic Heroes Compensation Act would be open to both public- and private-sector employees whose jobs had been designated as being essential during the pandemic.