Hopes for COVID-19 workers’ comp expansion ends in Senate committee

By: - September 24, 2020 6:00 pm

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

A Virginia Senate committee swiftly killed a bill that would extend COVID-19-related workers’ compensation to first responders, teachers and health care providers.

The Thursday vote ended any chance of expanding coverage during the ongoing special session — now in its fifth week — and marked another blow for House Democratic leadership, who announced the legislation as a priority before lawmakers convened on Aug. 18. 

The bill from Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, would have made it easier for certain essential workers — including school employees, firefighters and police officers, and medical providers — to receive benefits if they contracted COVID-19 on the job. The virus is currently considered an “ordinary disease of life” under Virginia code, making it nearly impossible for workers to claim compensation unless they have airtight proof they caught the virus at work.

Jones’ bill aimed to reclassify it as an occupational disease for certain industries, similar to recent legislation that made it easier for firefighters to claim benefits for cancers connected to smoke and hazardous chemicals. It passed the House with support from a handful of Republican delegates in a 61-37 final vote. 

From left, Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, left, and Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News and Del. Joe Lindsey, D-Norfolk, talk about legislation they are introducing as they stand outside the Siegel Center in Richmond, where the Virginia House of Delegates was meeting Tuesday, August 18, 2020. Behind them, a group from the Boogaloo organization stands. (Pool photo by Bob Brown/ Richmond Times-Dispatch)

But the legislation came with a hefty financial impact statement from some local governments, with Alexandria estimating it could cost as much as $5.5 million.

“Money is certainly an issue for everybody at this point, and I know we understand that,” Jones said in a phone interview on Thursday. “The estimations, you can take them or leave them, but we believed strongly that this measure is worth the investment.” 

The House version of the state’s amended two-year budget bill included $200,000 in general fund revenues to help pay for the legislation

But members of the Senate Appropriations committee, who voted quickly and unanimously to table the bill, said the potential financial hit was too considerable at a time when local governments across the state are struggling to close anticipated budget shortfalls.

“I think everyone in this committee would like to do this, but the financial impact on the state and localities is so enormous that we’d certainly need to take a couple months to look at it,” Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, said before the vote. 

Jones said the decision “wasn’t a surprise” given that the same Senate committee killed its own version of the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, earlier this month. The House and Senate have found themselves at odds on several measures during the special session, including COVID-related workers’ protections, which some Senate lawmakers have been reluctant to pass during an ostensibly abbreviated session initially intended for budget revisions.

“The House and the Senate are different chambers with different personalities and different priorities, if you will,” Jones said. “And this was a measure where I don’t think the bodies were really synched.”

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 for teachers as schools begin to resume in-person instruction. 

First responders have also steadfastly supported the legislation amid a pandemic that has sickened multiple police officers and firefighters across the state. Legislators from both chambers agreed the bill would be reconsidered when the General Assembly reconvenes for its regular session this winter.

“We need a couple months, and we can do that sometime in January,” Newman said before the vote.

“The most important thing is that we’re going to come back with legislation that’s going to prioritize our frontline and essential workers,” Jones added later. “We owe it to them to give them the presumption under worker’s compensation, because they are putting themselves on the line each and every day.”

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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.