‘It feels like they don’t care’- Bill expanding workers comp for COVID-19 leaves out large groups

Capitol Connection

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Public safety workers who suffer from severe, job-related cases of COVID-19 are being denied benefits.

The Virginia General Assembly is trying to change that but the version of the bill that’s likely to pass isn’t retroactive. It also won’t kick in until most essential employees have already been vaccinated.

Virginia’s Workers Compensation Act gives employees that incur certain injuries on the job the opportunity to have their medical bills, rehabilitation costs and lost wages covered. Currently, lawmakers say essential workers who suffer a total or partial disability due to COVID-19 aren’t eligible. 

The bill that passed with unanimous support in the Senate on Thursday would allow law enforcement, corrections officers, firefighters and EMS providers to collect these benefits. Eligible employees would have to show positive test results and prove that their symptoms required medical treatment.

The push comes after a broader bill that also included school employees and healthcare personnel failed in last year’s special session.

This time around, the scope of the bill is much more limited.

The Senate legislation would only apply to a person diagnosed with COVID-19 on or after July 1, 2021. The death or disability also has to occur after that date.

The public safety workers included in the bill are currently eligible for coronavirus vaccinations under “Phase 1b,” which is ongoing in the Commonwealth and expected to be complete before the summer.

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax), a chief co-patron of the bill, said the Finance Committee decided not to make the bill retroactive because of the cost burden on localities. The fiscal impact is now estimated to be about $3 million dollars total, much less than the original price tag of $15 million.

Meanwhile, a similar bill in the House that passed unanimously on Thursday would apply to claims going back to March of 2020.

“That won’t make it through the Senate,” Saslaw said in an interview after the vote. “The money is simply not there in our budget.”

Without a change of heart, Virginians like Michelle Gunter will be left empty-handed.

“It makes me feel like they don’t care,” Gunter said.

Gunter is back at home after spending three weeks on a ventilator and nearly three months in the hospital last year. Her bout with coronavirus left her with severe mobility and memory loss. She had to do weeks of rehab to relearn how to walk and complete simple tasks like bathing, cooking and washing clothes.

“I’m still on oxygen. I’m still using a walker. I’m wearing pull ups,” Gunter said. “It’s sad to say at 52 years old. But I laugh to keep from crying.”

Gunter said she was exposed to COVID-19 when she came into contact with a sick inmate while working as a Pittsylvania County Sheriff’s deputy.

“The inmate literally collapsed on me,” Gunter said.

Gunter said the county agreed to continue paying her through January 31. Now, facing more than a million dollars in medical bills with no income, Gunter said her workers compensation claim was denied.

“I’m heartbroken because I gave Pittsylvania County the best years of my life and I got hurt on the job,” Gunter said. “It’s a slap in the face.”

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