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Legislators at odds over how to extend workers’ compensation pay for Virginia's first responders and nurses who contract COVID-19
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Legislators at odds over how to extend workers’ compensation pay for Virginia's first responders and nurses who contract COVID-19

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RICHMOND — Holly Zimmerman hasn’t worked since July, when she fell ill from caring for COVID-19 patients.

“Nurses take care of whoever walks in the door, risking our lives every day,” said Zimmerman, who has been a nurse for 34 years.

After catching the virus, she’s had multiple seizures, experienced memory loss, and suffered severe respiratory infection. She’s stayed at home in Bassett, depleting her savings and 401(k). She’s sold her car, and her mortgage and student loans are in forbearance. She hasn’t been able to receive workers’ compensation.

“This is what’s hurting our nurses today, the length of time to recover,” she said.

With the General Assembly session winding down in the next few days, lawmakers are at odds over how to extend workers’ compensation pay for various first responders and nurses who contract COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, right now we’re at an impasse,” said Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, who is leading a push for a measure to cover nurses.

There are three measures the legislature is considering, and the biggest issue lawmakers are in dispute over is when the compensation pay should apply. The House of Delegates wants it to extend back to March of last year, which marked the start of the emergency in Virginia. The Senate wants it to cover people from July to December of this year.

“Now more than ever, we’ve got to prioritize our heroes who put themselves on the line over the last year,” said Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, who is sponsoring one of the bills.

The proposals from Jones and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, would provide a legal “presumption” that if firefighters, law enforcement, correction officers and emergency medical workers get sick with COVID-19 that it came from work for the purposes of receiving workers’ compensation. Hurst’s bill would cover health care employees who work directly with COVID-19 patients.

Delegates and senators will meet over the next few days to see if they can come to a consensus on the bills. With vaccination underway, delegates are insisting that applying the pay back to March is a fair way to compensate those employees diagnosed with COVID-19.

“Never before have we seen a crisis like this and to not provide the retroactivity in this bill would be nothing short of disgusting,” Jones said. “And frankly, the Senate of Virginia has been obstinate in this regard, and we’d like to see them get to the same level as the House with the retroactivity clause.”

Mary Kay Goldschmidt, a lobbyist for the Virginia Nurses Association, said because nurses have been prioritized for vaccines, if the workers compensation doesn’t go back to March, then “it will almost help no one.”

This is one of the leftover issues from the General Assembly’s special session last summer. The Senate didn’t take up legislation on the matter then, once again citing costs to local governments.

Saslaw said the legislation currently under consideration would carry an “astronomical” price for local governments, which would have to pay workers’ compensation claims by its employees.

“The cost to local governments is prohibitive, and that’s strictly the reason” Saslaw said.

The Virginia Association of Counties Group Self-Insurance Risk Pool, representing about 460 counties, authorities and school systems, reported to lawmakers that the retroactive clause could cost localities $15 million. If the workers’ compensation is only paid out from July through the end of the year, it would drive down the cost to about $3 million.

Some localities have spent all of their federal coronavirus relief act funding, while others still have some money left over that they could use to cover this expense.

Jeremy Bennett, a lobbyist for the Virginia Association of Counties, asked the legislature to provide funding if it were to enact this change. The House and Senate have both set aside money to cover costs to the state, but there’s no additional funding for localities.

Groups advocating for firefighters, nurses and law enforcement have been urging the legislature to pass this legislation, favoring the workers’ compensation to cover employees at the start of the pandemic.

John Wright, the legislative director for the Virginia Professional Firefighters Association, said there are firefighters who have been unable to return to work because of lingering effects from contracting COVID-19.

“Early in the pandemic and throughout, we were seeing public comments made by our political leaders all around the commonwealth calling nurses and firefighters and our frontline workers ‘heroes,’” Wright said. “We don’t view ourselves that way. This is our profession, we chose to do it. But if legislators want to call us heroes, we appreciate that, but prove it with actions and not words and pass these bills with the retroactive approach.”

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