The minute Caitlin, 30, an intensive care unit nurse in Brooklyn, wakes up, anxiety sets in.
“You feel like you’re taking your chances and you’re risking things and working underneath conditions where you’re just very fearful,” she told HuffPost over the phone, asking that we not use her last name because she doesn’t want her hospital to know she’s spoken to the press. “You’re doing what you signed up to do, but no one signed up for COVID-19.”
A growing number of nurses and other medical personnel have contracted COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Some have died. On Friday evening, New Yorkers received an emergency alert seeking health care workers “to support healthcare facilities in need,” presumably to supplant other workers. But those frontline workers and their families are not eligible for any special compensation beyond regular life insurance or other death benefits.
“Now you go into work and it’s like your life doesn’t matter,” Caitlin said. “You want to save people’s lives and you want to take care of people the best that you can, but you’re also fearful for your own life and the people that you have at home.”
New York Police Department officers and firefighters, on the other hand, can receive full line-of-duty death benefits that provide their surviving spouse with a lifetime of their pension and health benefits as well as their children until they turn 26. However, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) are also first responders, but they do not receive line-of-duty benefits.
In a city once racked by crime and traumatized by the mass deaths of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the disparity elucidates how the city has long prioritized threats and whom it considers the heroes. Yet as New York became the epicenter of a deadly global pandemic, those priorities look increasingly out of sync with the new reality.
The exact number of medical workers who have contracted and succumbed to the virus is unclear. The city’s public health system has declined to share any data on sick workers.
“Someone got sent home the other day because they had a temperature and someone else left work because they started feeling unwell,” Caitlin said. “I think the reality sets in when you start to see everyone else get sick, that potentially it could be you.”
There’s now an effort to expand those the protections that cops and firefighters count on when rushing into harm’s way. But the push, led by New York City Councilman Joe Borelli, a Staten Island Republican with deep ties to the police force, is largely focused on cementing benefits for first responders and building on the 9/11 aid packages. And it could likely leave out the besieged health care workers who are already dying.
Other Workers Left Out
On Monday, Borelli sent both New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio a letter, signed by 19 other city and state politicians, requesting that all first responders and essential public workers receive full line-of-duty benefits if they die of COVID-19.
“As such we are asking you to collaborate with all applicable pension boards to ensure that first responders or essential employees of any city agency, stage agency, or public authority, who perished from COVID-19, is presumed to have contracted the virus in the course of their work, and are, as a result, entitled to a full contractual line-of-duty death benefit and payments,” Borelli wrote.
First responder union leaders are also rallying behind the effort, The City reported. So far, five NYPD employees have succumbed to the virus, 1,400 have tested positive for it and 17% of the force has called out sick. It was also reported that 282 members of the New York Fire Department, including firefighters and EMT workers, tested positive for the virus. There’s no doubt that the virus has been ravaging the city’s first responders.
There aren’t any analogous benefits for health care workers. As a member of the New York Nurses Association, the state’s largest nurses union, the most Caitlin can hope for is hazard pay, which provides workers with additional pay for working under hazardous conditions. But thus far, most medical workers aren’t receiving hazard pay.
“It shouldn’t come down to money, and I don’t really think money is going to make me feel better about the situation,” she said.
Many intensive care unit nurses are so inundated with their hectic day-to-day that pursuing any kind of additional pay or benefits isn’t on their minds.
“Right now, everybody is just trying to survive,” said a 41-year-old Brooklyn intensive care unit nurse who asked to remain anonymous due to hospitals cracking down on their staff speaking to the press. “At the end of the day, we don’t even have the energy to fight for our rights.”
She also said that hazard pay isn’t an option for nurses like her, who are members of the United Teachers Federation (which also covers some nurses). The only thing she could hope for if she becomes infected is workers’ compensation, she said, but it’s unclear if a COVID-19 infection claim would be covered.
The new initiative to extend line-of-duty benefits to first responders and other medical staff also leaves out some unionized essential workers, such as transit, sanitation and electrical workers, who do not have similar benefits included in their contracts.
“I don’t really have the power to enforce a collectively bargained agreement with Verizon workers and electricians,” Borelli told HuffPost over the phone. “If we could, we wouldn’t have a Spectrum strike going on right now. But we do know that we have pension boards that are controlled by politics and by the state and city purses — and that’s where we can influence.” (HuffPost is part of Verizon Media Group.)
It’s up to pension boards to determine benefits provided to employees, and because most — not including first responder pension boards — haven’t previously bargained for something akin to line-of-duty benefits, it’s unclear what recourse these employees have. Medical workers may be more prone to catching an infectious disease, but NYPD officers are frequently thrust into dangerous situations whether they’re responding to a shooting or breaking up a fight. This is why most essential workers, such as nurses, have not bargained for line-of-duty benefits.
The councilman explained that his primary goal is to get the city and state to put pressure on union pension boards to ensure that COVID-19 deaths are presumed to be deaths that occurred in the line of duty.
Borelli said he wants New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to push this through by persuading the various people they’ve appointed to union boards to support the initiative.
Neither Cuomo’s nor de Blasio’s office responded to a request for comment.
Expanding The Definition Of Line-Of-Duty Deaths
There is precedent for such legislation. After 9/11, first responders fought to have deaths related to the disaster presumed to be in the line of duty and thus fully covered. That state legislation was passed in 2005 and amended a year later to include those who later died of diseases caused by the disaster. Still, many 9/11 line-of-duty claims have been contested.
Moving state legislation forward this year may prove especially difficult, however, as New York faces an estimated $10 billion to $15 billion budget gap.
First responders’ union leaders are hoping that by being proactive now, they can prevent the mistakes that were made after 9/11.
“The presumptive 9/11 disability legislation took years [to pass] after the events of 9/11,” said Patrick Cullen, president of the New York State Supreme Court Officers Association. Those officers do not have access to line-of-duty benefits, he told HuffPost, even though they’re continuing to report to duty at courthouses, increasing their risk of contracting COVID-19. “So this situation really calls for an immediate beginning to the conversation about starting to protect the people that have protected us and continue to do so.”
There are also concerns that first responder pension boards will dismiss COVID-19 line-of-duty claims. Nicholas Cifuni, disability counsel to some of the largest police unions in New York City, is worried that such a claim may be rejected if a pension board is unable to verify when and how the person became infected with the virus.
But Eugene O’Donnell, a retired NYPD officer and lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is less concerned about that.
“The irony here is that the police and fire departments have the power and the more key capacity to get attention, but there’s a whole bunch of public employees that are totally exposed,” O’Donnell said. “And they don’t necessarily have the clout like they do. Health care workers, like nurses, don’t have any kind of emergency clout — but they need it.”
“Generally speaking, the police and firefighters are very well looked after,” O’Donnell added. “And I would strongly urge them to get behind any kind of legislation that not only enhances but really underscores their benefits.”
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