Right now, the families of first responders who die of the coronavirus must first prove that they were infected on the job before they can collect federal death benefits.
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators say that’s unfair, and they’ve introduced legislation to automatically declare that first responders who die of COVID-19 gave their lives in the line of duty.
The measure was introduced Tuesday by U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.
“It’s the least we can do for the people who put their lives on the line to protect us,” Booker said on a conference call with U.S. Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-9th Dist., has introduced similar legislation in the House.
The legislation guarantees federal benefits to families of first responders — police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians — who die due to the virus without first having to prove that the first responder was infected while on the job.
Under the legislation, death benefits would be paid if a first responder is diagnosed with the coronavirus within 45 days of his or her last shift. The benefits go to public employees and volunteers, though lawmakers said they hoped to expand the program to also include those working for private companies.
About 20 first responders in New Jersey have died due to COVID-19, senators said.
Gillibrand acknowledged that the bipartisan support for the bill didn’t mean the Senate would take it up.
She said it took a massive lobbying effort joined by comedian Jon Stewart to overcome Republican objections and win passage of the Zadroga Act, which guaranteed payments to first responders who died after working at Ground Zero after 9/11.
“Their advocacy ultimately really carried the day,” Gillibrand said. “I believe given the momentum we had with Zadroga, and with bipartisan effort, they’re in in a perfect place to push this over the finish line.”