How would line-of-duty benefits work for COVID-19?

The meaning of the term “front line worker” has shifted dramatically during the coronavirus pandemic.
The meaning of the term “front line worker” has shifted dramatically during the coronavirus pandemic.
Manuel Esteban/Shutterstock
The meaning of the term “front line worker” has shifted dramatically during the coronavirus pandemic.

How would line-of-duty benefits work for COVID-19?

De Blasio has thrown his support behind death benefits for NYC workers, but the measure would first have to pass in Albany.
May 24, 2020

The meaning of the term “front line worker” has shifted dramatically during the coronavirus pandemic, to include not just cops, EMTs and firefighters, but municipal workers such as teachers, nurses at public hospitals and train operators. Now, the state’s understanding of what it means to die in the “line of duty” could shift as well.

Following calls from the New York City Council and state lawmakers, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced this week that he supports granting line-of-duty death benefits to the families of municipal workers who have died from COVID-19. 

So far, at least 277 New York City employees have died from the coronavirus. This measure would automatically classify those deaths as happening in the line of duty under the presumption that the worker contracted the virus while on the job. That worker’s family and beneficiaries would then be entitled to receive death benefits and their pensions.

But a complex and potentially lengthy road lies ahead to pass necessary state legislation to allow deaths of government employees from COVID-19 to be classified as line-of-duty deaths. Here’s how line-of-duty death benefits for government employees would work: 

What’s the benefit of line-of-duty benefits?

Written into many government pension funds as “accidental death” benefits, a line-of-duty classification means that a worker has died while on the job. In many government pension plans, additional death benefits – like health insurance for spouses – are made available when a worker dies in the line of duty. Their survivors wouldn’t otherwise be entitled to these benefits if the person died of natural causes.

But the kinds of death benefits granted to government employees vary widely based on the category of work. The survivors of New York City Police Department detectives, for example, are entitled to a portion of the deceased’s salary and health benefits for life, whereas if they die of an unrelated illness their survivors would typically get a lump-sum payment or monthly allowance of roughly three times their salary. But benefits often vary based on how long a person has held that job, and they can differ greatly in other public sector occupations, including teachers, nurses and sanitation workers – all public servants who have died from COVID-19. While death benefits for other government positions are often less generous than they are for police officers, other categories of government workers still receive them. The survivors of emergency medical technicians – who already make less than other first responders – are entitled to just three years of the EMT’s full salary if the person died in the line of duty. 

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has already approved death benefits of $500,000 and three years of health coverage to the spouse or beneficiary of transit workers who died from the coronavirus. As of Wednesday, 123 transit workers had died of the coronavirus.

But proving that a worker died from an illness contracted while on the job is more difficult than drawing that obvious conclusion when a cop is shot in the line of duty or a firefighter dies of asphyxiation in a burning building. One of the hurdles in giving COVID-19 deaths the line-of-duty designation is having to prove that the worker contracted the coronavirus while on the job, even though it’s probably safe to assume that they did. The same is true of proving that any other kind of illness was contracted while on the job.

One of the best known examples of this challenge is the case of Tracy Allen Lee, an EMT who contracted HIV while treating a patient in 1989, and later died from AIDS. Despite filing a report when she realized she may have been exposed to HIV on the job, her request to have her illness diagnosed as a line-of-duty injury – and receive added benefits including two years of workers’ compensation – was denied by New York City. After she died, she did receive the line-of-duty designation and was given a city-funded funeral. The state then passed a law in 1998, one year after Lee’s death, requiring that all emergency responders who contracted HIV on the job be automatically classified as line-of-duty cases. A similar law was also passed in 2005 to ensure that workers who responded to the terrorist attacks on September 11 and developed illnesses related to working at Ground Zero – like respiratory diseases or cancers – be classified as line-of-duty. Non-uniformed workers who aided in the clean-up effort at the World Trade Center were added last year.

But for the most part – with the exception of cases where it’s already presumed the person was injured or killed in the line of duty, including workers who developed 9/11-related illnesses – a city employee, their beneficiary or the union that represents them has to make a case in front of on of the city’s five pension boards that an accident occurred while on the job to receive line-of-duty benefits. Part of the goal of classifying all deaths from COVID-19 as line-of-duty deaths is to avoid the need to make each individual case in front of the pension boards.

Though the coronavirus outbreak has hit New York City particularly hard, other parts of the state – and their workers – haven’t escaped the virus’ worst effects. While death benefits vary based on the kind of government job, the state retirement system also includes additional death benefits for employees that are determined to have died as a result of an on-the-job accident. 

What has to happen to extend line-of-duty benefits to include COVID-19 deaths?

Though de Blasio previously responded to calls for COVID-19 line-of-duty death benefits by saying that the federal government should be responsible for paying death benefits, on Tuesday he said he would push Albany to get this done. 

But in order for the city to release line-of-duty benefits to the families and beneficiaries, the state Legislature first has to pass what’s being referred to as a “presumption bill.” This bill – the final version of which is still in the works – would make clear that any government employee who died of COVID-19 contracted it while on the job. While the onus is typically on workers or unions to prove that an injury or death happened while on the job, this bill would relieve survivors from having to trace a COVID-19 infection to prove that a sanitation worker or teacher, for example, contracted the virus while at work. 

Assemblyman Peter Abbate, who chairs the Committee on Governmental Employees, has already introduced an early draft of this bill. “If the death certificate says they died of the COVID virus, they qualify,” Abbate, who represents Brooklyn neighborhoods including Bensonhurst and Borough Park, told City & State, of how the legislation would work. “They’re presumed to have gotten it on the job. And 99.9%, that’s where they got it. They didn’t go on a vacation to China or Italy or Spain and catch it there. They were working.”

But Abbate’s bill is unlikely to be the final version that the Legislature ultimately aims to pass because he is working on a new version with his counterpart in the Senate, Andrew Gounardes, who represents a first-responder heavy district in southern Brooklyn. The new bill is expected to address in more detail how death benefits for those who have died from COVID-19 would work. Both offices told City & State that they’re drafting that bill now. 

Abbate added that the measure would apply to government workers across the state, not just in New York City. 

Who will pay for these benefits?

Abbate told City & State that the funds to pay line-of-duty death benefits to families of workers who died from COVID-19 would come out of state or city pension funds, depending on whether the worker had a New York City pension, or a pension under the state retirement system. Laura Feyer, a spokesman for de Blasio, said that providing line-of-duty benefits to families of city workers who have died from COVID-19 is estimated to cost $15 million per year. 

And though de Blasio has been pushing for a new federal stimulus package with more funding for state and local governments, Feyer said that granting line-of-duty benefits to these workers wouldn’t be dependent on that stimulus money coming through. 

Members of New York’s congressional delegation have, however, introduced their own legislationmodeled after the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, which would provide additional benefits to essential workers (or their families) who have gotten sick or died from COVID-19. Financial assistance provided by that compensation fund could be used for medical bills, burial costs or loss of employment, among other things. The legislation, co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth from Illinois, would not just apply to New York but would extend financial assistance to workers affected across the country.

How soon can this bill be passed in Albany?

Abbate told City & State that while he aims to pass the legislation as soon as possible, a bill has yet to be introduced in the Senate, meaning Abbate will likely be submitting a new bill to match the Senate version as well. “It’s a very technical bill, I’m sure there will be a number of drafts so we don’t exclude anyone. There were like 15 drafts of the 9/11 bill,” Abbate said. “We’ll probably make some changes on it, and we’ll both put in the same bill.”

Part of what will take a while, as Abbate suggests, is figuring out how to include all government employees.“We're taking a very expansive look at this,” Gounardes said. “I think any public worker who was reporting for duty during this COVID crisis, and who passes away from COVID, should be entitled to full recognition that their death was caused by their work.”

Both the Senate and Assembly plan to reconvene on Tuesday, and City & State reported earlier this week that there are about a dozen COVID-19-related bills that lawmakers in both houses want to pass this year. It’s not a given, however, that this bill will definitely pass this session, because of how long it’s expected to take to work through the details. Still, it’s a measure that has so far proven popular among lawmakers, including 13 state lawmakers who applauded de Blasio’s support of the measure.

Meanwhile, unions for public sector workers – including NYPD officers and EMTs – continue to push for the legislation to be passed as soon as possible. Paul DiGiacomo, president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, the union for NYPD detectives, said that five detectives so far have died from COVID-19. Their families will be dependent on the state Legislature passing the bill, he told City & State. “These families’ health was put in jeopardy because their husbands were New York City detectives that went out on the front lines and contracted this virus, and brought it home to their families, and ultimately died from the coronavirus,” DiGiacomo said. “I hope and pray that they come back in time for this bill.”

Zach Williams contributed reporting.

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.