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Virginia's Capitol

Virginia lawmakers have passed bills that allow certain first responders to file workers’ compensation benefits when they become disabled from COVID-19, but they still need to reach agreement on some specifics.

The measures would make COVID-19 an occupational disease for firefighters, emergency medical services personnel and law enforcement or correctional officers; these individuals would be eligible to file for workers’ compensation benefits.

The workers’ dependents also would be eligible for benefits if the workers die from COVID-19. Occupational diseases are those that arise out of and in the course of employment, according to state law, and include hepatitis, meningococcal meningitis, tuberculosis or HIV. 

Senate Bill 1375, sponsored by Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, and House Bill 2207, introduced by Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, had mostly unanimous support.

The main difference between the bills is that the House bill would extend the compensation to regional jail officers. The Senate also rejected an amendment by the House that would allow compensation for cases going back to March 2020. The bills would apply to persons diagnosed with COVID-19 on or after July 1, and whose death or disability from COVID-19 occurred on or after that same date, Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church said in an email. She is the Senate bill’s House patron. 

The workers and their dependents must meet certain requirements to be eligible for workers compensation. The bill states that the COVID-19 virus must be established by a positive diagnostic test, along with an incubation period consistent with COVID-19 and symptoms of COVID-19 that require medical treatment.

The bill would add COVID-19 to the work-related diseases that prevent certain first responders or corrections officers from working and would cause them to lose their income, Kory said.

“In this time of pandemic emergency, our first responders are likely to be exposed to the coronavirus on the job and should be protected if exposed to this dangerous virus,” Kory said in a statement. “I believe that adding this unemployment eligibility condition to the other work-related disabling conditions in our Code is the fair and just thing to do.”

It would cost an estimated $2.5 million to $3.3 million to implement the Senate legislation, according to a Senate Finance and Appropriations committee held in early February. The House bill would cost significantly more if it allowed compensation for cases going back to March 2020. 

There was some opposition to Jones’ bill during a January House subcommittee meeting. Jeremy Bennett, director of intergovernmental affairs at the Virginia Association of Counties, which seeks to represent the interests of counties in the state, urged legislators to vote against the House bill. He said local governments and risk insurance providers haven’t budgeted for additional payments that the new law would require. The bill should only be approved if the state provides local governments with additional funding, he said. 

Lawmakers agreed Friday to a conference committee to resolve legislative differences.

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