TEXAS CITY, Texas — A family in Texas City is grieving the death of 58-year-old Elizabeth Ann Jones. They say she died of COVID-19 and they believe she caught the virus at work. But they say the state has refused to give her family her benefits.
Jones was a correctional officer at the Carole S. Young facility in Dickinson.
Family members say she was one year away from retirement. But in July, they say, she was watching over an inmate who had tested positive for COVID-19 and they believe that's how she caught the virus.
"She was afraid of getting it, and she knew that she was in a position that she was most likely to get it,” said her sister, Sandra Hightower. "It took her about two weeks. From when she died to when she caught it -- two weeks."
Jones is one of 23 Texas correctional officers have died from COVID-19.
First responders who die in the line of duty are eligible for $500,000, funeral expenses paid by the state and wage benefits.
Now, Hightower says the State of Texas has denied Jones' family her state benefits. The Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT) says it's happening all across the state.
The Department of Criminal Justice says they report all COVID-19 deaths as being in the line of duty. But then, it’s up to the Office of Risk Management to determine if COVID-19 was contracted at work. And without this proof, families don’t receive the benefits.
"It needs to be ruled a presumptive death. The family doesn’t have to wait around. And especially the burden of proof, doesn’t need to be put back on the grieving family," said Charley Wilkison Executive Director of CLEAT.
Until COVID-19 deaths of first responders are labeled "presumptive" — meaning it's presumed they got it on the job — they will continue to try to prove how they contracted the virus.
"Then we’re going to be asking family members to go back and somehow prove, ‘Was I at this call? Was it this arrest? Was it this interaction on this street corner?’” Wilkison said. “That threshold is going to be impossible to achieve.”
Wilkison says Texas Governor Greg Abbott could fix this problem with an executive order.
In a statement to WFAA, a spokeswoman for the governor said, “Governor Abbott’s heart goes out to the families of those who have lost loved ones due to COVID-19.”
The statement says the law already allows first responders to get workers’ compensation benefits for “respiratory illnesses.”
But CLEAT says that’s not the case. The law does not include COVID-19.
"It's irresponsible for us, as a state, not to do everything to protect those families," Wilkison said.
CLEAT is working with state legislators to change that.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told KHOU that he'll make sure it's a priority.
“Lt. Governor Dan Patrick absolutely supports workers’ compensation coverage for all law enforcement and first responders who contract COVID-19, including our correctional officers and he will make it a top priority in the next legislative session to make sure they are covered now and retroactively," Patrick's office said in a statement. "Like every Texan, the Lt. Governor is very grateful to our law enforcement and our first responders who put their lives on the line for us everyday."
In the meantime, these grieving families are hoping the state can give them the benefits their loved ones worked so hard for.