Labor & Employment Law Daily COVID-19 benefits bill for first responders becomes law
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Wednesday, August 19, 2020

COVID-19 benefits bill for first responders becomes law

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

The new law creates presumptions about the COVID-19-related deaths and disabilities of police officers and first responders.

On August 14, President Trump signed into law the Safeguarding America’s First Responders Act (SAFR Act), which clarifies certification requirements for survivor benefits under the Public Safety Officers Benefits Program (PSOB) to account for the unique challenges presented by the current coronavirus pandemic. The bipartisan legislation, S. 3607, was introduced by Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on May 5, 2020, unanimously cleared the Senate on May 14, and then cleared the House on July 20.

PSOB benefits. When a public safety officer (e.g., police officers, fire fighters, or chaplains in a public agency; emergency management agency employees; and emergency medical service members) is killed in the line of duty, the PSOB provides a one-time lump sum payment of $359,316 and/or education assistance of $1,224.00 per month to the officer’s children or spouse. Infectious diseases are covered as a line-of-duty death as long as evidence indicates that the infectious disease was contracted while on duty.

While providing evidence that a deadly disease was contracted on duty can be straightforward in instances where an officer comes into contact with a dirty needle, it can be very challenging to do so when it comes to COVID-19.

Presumption death due to COVID-19. The SAFR Act creates a presumption that if a first responder is diagnosed with COVID-19 within 45 days of their last day on duty, the Department of Justice will treat it as a line of duty incident. This presumption will guarantee payment of benefits to any first responder who dies from COVID-19 or a related complication. The presumption will run from January 1, 2020, through December 31, 2021.

To qualify for the presumption, there must be a diagnosis of COVID-19 or there must be evidence indicating that the officer had COVID-19 at the time of death, which covers officers in high-impact areas where finding tests can be difficult.

Disability presumption. The Act also creates a presumption that COVID–19 or related complications suffered by a public safety officer constitute a personal injury for purposes of disability benefits so long as the officer was engaged in a line of duty action or activity between January 1, 2020, and December 31, 2021, and the officer was diagnosed with COVID–19 or evidence indicates that the officer had COVID–19, during the 45-day period beginning on the last day of duty of the officer.

Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J), an original cosponsor of the legislation, applauded the President’s signing of the bill. “While this pandemic has changed daily life for so many Americans, our brave first responders have continued to put their lives on the line to protect our communities—and they’ve done so at significantly increased risk to themselves and to their families,” Booker said in a press release. “We have lost far too many first responders to COVID-19, and their families will now without question receive the federal benefits they deserve in their time of unimaginable loss. Our first responders never hesitate to answer the call, and we must always answer theirs.”

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