TYLER, Texas — First responders show up every day, but many say the state of Texas is not returning the favor.
The Combined Law Enforcement Agencies of Texas (CLEAT) is leading a week-long effort to make COVID-19 a presumed condition for workers’ compensation for first responders. That designation would allow any police officer, jail officer, firefighter, or medic who gets sick to automatically qualify for coverage for time away from work and health care costs.
Texas is in the minority of states that has not attempted to make COVID-19 a presumed condition. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, 15 states have already done so, while 15 more have tried.
“We’re very surprised, considering the number of executive orders that have been issued by the governor,” Jennifer Szimanski said. “This just seems like a no-brainer. If we’re going to mandate that they go to work, which, obviously, that’s going to happen — they’re gonna show up for work, they’re sworn to do so— then they should be taken care of.”
It would also mean the families of those who die from COVID-19 would get line-of-duty death benefits. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, more officers have died of COVID-19 than all other line-of-duty causes this year. But Szimanski, CLEAT’s public affairs coordinator, says that does not mean anything yet for dozens of families in Texas.
“We have officers who have passed away whose families are dealing with different types of denials at different stages in the process,” she explained. “So, some of them, the actual agency hasn’t declared it a line-of-duty death. Some of them, they have, but at a different stage in the process they’ve been denied, so, by workers’ comp or by the third-party insurance company that the agency might be under.”
Texas does not have a unified code for COVID-19 workers’ compensation claims, and Szimanski says CLEAT’s goal is to change that. “We feel confident we can pass something in session,” she said. “But the problem is, this is occurring right now, as we speak, and these families are dealing with these deaths as we speak.”
More than 40 officers and jail officers in Texas have died of COVID-19. Many of their families will be in Austin on Friday for a walk of remembrance, hoping Gov. Greg Abbott takes care of them, the way their loved ones took care of their communities.
“This is the least that the State of Texas can do,” Szimanski said. "To ensure that if they were to contract COVID, that they, their families would be taken care of, and that they would be taken care of financially.”
CLEAT began its week of advocacy Tuesday with a presentation by its legal counsel about Chapter 607 of the Texas Government Code, which covers workers’ compensation benefits for first responders. A presentation Wednesday will go over all the steps CLEAT has taken on this issue since the coronavirus pandemic began, and a virtual roundtable discussion on Thursday will include some of the state legislators who support the position.