‘A massive cost’: Senate committee tables COVID-19 workers’ comp expansion

By: - September 10, 2020 12:01 am

Capitol Police stand along Main Street during the “Reopen Virginia Rally” in Richmond, Va., April 22, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Legislation extending COVID-19-related workers’ compensation coverage to first responders, teachers and health care workers hit a snag on Wednesday when a Virginia Senate committee delayed a vote on its version of the bill.

Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, the chamber’s president pro tempore, successfully moved to “pass by” (or postpone a decision) on the legislation for the day. But committee chairwoman Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, later announced that members would only take up legislation from the House for the remainder of the special session — effectively stopping the bill in committee.

The legislation from Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, largely mirrored a bill that successfully passed through the House of Delegates last week. Senators on both sides of the aisle, however, argued Wednesday that the potential fiscal impact of the bill was prohibitive as Virginia grapples with an anticipated $2.7 billion budget shortfall over the next two years. 

Those concerns make the future of the House bill uncertain as it switches to the opposing chamber for consideration. Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, who sponsored the legislation in the House, said that he hadn’t discussed it with senators before the committee decision. And while the House version picked up support from a handful of Republican delegates in a 61-37 final vote, it’s unclear if it will receive the same bipartisan backing in the Senate.

“I’m certainly hopeful that the bill will ultimately get to the governor,” Jones said in a phone interview later on Wednesday. “It’s a priority of the House Democratic caucus, it’s very important to me, and I have all the respect in the world for people who put themselves on the line for us during the pandemic. We need to do right by them in this process.”

Eligibility for workers’ compensation has been a significant concern in multiple industries throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In July, the state’s largest school insurer said compensation was unlikely for school employees who contracted COVID-19 — a particular concern in the 64 local districts with some form of in-person instruction time. 

First responders have also steadfastly supported the legislation amid a pandemic that has sickened multiple police officers and firefighters across the state. 

Coronavirus is currently considered an “ordinary disease of life” rather than one with an elevated risk for certain professions. Both bills aimed to reclassify it as an occupational disease for some industries, which would mean that employees would be presumed to have contracted the virus on the job unless employers or insurers could prove otherwise.

Opponents, though, have said that potential claims would have an outsize burden on localities whose budgets are already struggling during the ongoing epidemic. “We’re concerned that the price tag of this bill, at a time when our budgets are strained, it’s too much for us to take on,” said J.T. Kessler, a lobbyist for the Virginia School Boards Association, at a House committee hearing in late August.

Virginia State Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, holds his mask as he addresses the body during the Virginia Senate Special Session in the temporary Senate chambers at the Science Museum of Virginia Tuesday Aug. 18, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber/Pool)

A fiscal impact statement for Saslaw’s bill described the total cost as “indeterminate,” but added that it could affect the state’s Office of Worker’s Compensation program and multiple services within the Virginia Retirement System. On Wednesday, multiple senators also argued that the potential financial hit had grown with the scope of the bill, which — unlike Jones’ — was only amended later to include teachers and state correctional officers.

“If ever we had to know how much, it’s with this one,” said Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, adding that “clearly it’s a well-meaning item. But I just don’t know how we pay for it.”

Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford, makes remarks during debate of SB5120 dealing with changes to the elections laws as debate continued in the temporary Virginia Senate chamber inside the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, VA Thursday, August 27, 2020. Listening, right, is Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax.

“This would be a massive cost for local governments,” added Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City. “And as far as I’m concerned, we wouldn’t have in-person instruction this year. You couldn’t get insurance for your school employees, and that’s a policy decision I’m not ready to make right now.”

Supporters of the legislation have repeatedly said that costs to the state and to localities would remain low as long as workers are offered adequate protection from the disease.

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.