Extending Disability and Death Benefits to NJ First Responders Who Contract COVID-19

Lawmakers are pushing ahead bill to redefine coverage so benefits are linked to line-of-duty coronavirus infections rather than limited to ‘traumatic events’
Credit: (AP Photo Morgan Lee)
With COVID-19, even routine interactions between police and the public can be risky, which is one reason lawmakers are extending disability and death benefits for first responders.

State lawmakers are advancing legislation to ensure full disability and death benefits for New Jersey police officers and other first responders who are infected with COVID-19 during the ongoing pandemic.

Under current law, they are eligible for such benefits only in case of an accident — defined as a “traumatic event” — while at work.

A measure that cleared a key state Assembly committee on Monday would change state law so police officers, state troopers, firefighters and emergency medical responders would qualify for accidental-disability benefits if a COVID-19 infection results in their permanent disability.

The same bill would also provide relatives of first responders with full death benefits if a COVID-19 infection suffered during the public-health emergency results in a loss of life.

The legislation was introduced partly due to the outpouring of support across New Jersey for those who have been responding to emergencies during the pandemic, even as most people are being urged to stay home and limit their activities to reduce further spread of the disease.

“New Jersey owes debt of gratitude to each and every one of these brave residents protecting our communities under these challenging and unprecedented circumstances,” the bill’s three sponsors said in a joint statement issued on Monday.

A way to thank first responders

“Providing these benefits is one way we can thank them for all they have been doing — and continue to do — for our state,” said the sponsors, Assemblywomen Carol Murphy (D-Burlington) and Annette Chaparro (D-Hudson) and Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson).

New Jersey has been among the states that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic, with nearly 140,000 positive COVID-19 cases and 9,310 deaths, reported by Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration as of Monday. The state has also been operating under a public health state of emergency declared by Murphy for more than two months, with executive orders restricting the activities of schools and many businesses in recent weeks.

But several groups of what are considered “essential” workers have remained on the job throughout the pandemic in New Jersey, including police officers and other first responders. And there have already been numerous reports of first responders becoming infected with COVID-19 and, in some cases, dying.

Sean Lavin, executive director of the state lodge of the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police, told members of the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Monday that 10 police officers have died in New Jersey after contracting COVID-19 infections. That group includes a longtime member of the Newark police force whose death was announced over the weekend, said Lavin, who testified via videoconferencing under protocols lawmakers have put in place during the pandemic to ensure social distancing.

“Police officers do their job (and) take the risks that we do, every day,” Lavin said. “We do that with the understanding that there’s certain protections entitled to us. One of those is that if we make the ultimate sacrifice, that our families and loved ones will be provided for through our pension system.”

“We need this bill,” he went on to say. “Our members are grieving. Our families are grieving.”

The proposed policy changes that Lavin is backing would amend current law that allows for accidental-disability benefits to be provided to first responders who suffer a permanent disability “as a result of a traumatic event occurring during and as a result of regular or assigned duties.”

Extending definition of disability

The bill would add language to make it clear that a disability suffered by a first responder after contracting “an infectious disease during a public health emergency or state of emergency declared because of that disease” would also qualify for accidental-disability benefits if the first responder’s “regular or assigned duties required” them to interact with the public during the public-health emergency.

In addition, relatives of the first responder would qualify for full death benefits in the event their relative’s COVID-19 infection suffered during the pandemic results in death under the same conditions.

The legislation — which passed the committee unanimously in an 11-0 vote — would retroactively apply to March 9, 2020.

Both the accidental-disability and death benefit changes would be offered to members of a number of the state retirement systems in which first responders are enrolled. They are the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System (PFRS), Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS), and State Police Retirement System (SPRS).

An analysis of the bill’s potential impact on the three retirement systems has yet to be conducted by the Office of Legislative Services, but it is likely to increase liabilities if enacted.

Last year, Murphy signed into law a measure that extended state accidental-disability benefits to New Jersey first responders who became ill after volunteering at the World Trade Center site in New York City following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

A fiscal-impact analysis prepared by the OLS for that legislation suggested the policy change would increase the liabilities for the systems whose members can now qualify for September 11 benefits, which would, in turn, increase annual employer contributions owed by both the state and local governments.