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SC first responders risk catching coronavirus, but they might not get workers' comp

Steve Benjamin 2019 city council (2020_3_24)

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said he hadn't seen a city memo informing first responders that coronavirus-related issues would not be covered under workers' compensation. File/John A. Carlos II/Free Times

COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s cops and firefighters have stocked up on hand sanitizer, gloves and protective masks. Command staffs are ordering officers to avoid unnecessary contact in the line of duty. And dispatchers have begun screening emergency callers for coronavirus, flagging first responders to calls that may carry a risk of infection.

The precautions are aimed at protecting emergency workers during the outbreak. But for some, exposure to the contagion feels inevitable.

That’s led to a swirl of questions of whether local governments will be expected to cover the costs of first responders’ employee leave or medical bills.

Some local officials, including in Charleston, have already assured firefighters, police officers and paramedics that the government will cover some or all of their time off if they get sick. But for more serious cases of illness — or worse — first responders may be precluded from accessing a key protection: claims for financial assistance under workers’ compensation.

South Carolina’s workers’ compensation laws and other guidelines don’t address the spread of pandemics like coronavirus, said Gary Cannon, executive director of the S.C. Workers’ Compensation Commission.

In Columbia, first responders were told last week that their claims would not be covered. Officials later walked back that statement in an interview with The Post and Courier.

And as with any workers’ compensation case, first responders are not granted blanket protections under the laws. Each claim would be reviewed on its own merits.

That could leave first responders with the challenge of proving that they contracted the easily-transmittable virus in their line of duty, as opposed to, say, at the grocery store.

“How do you prove where somebody contracted this?” said Bill Pesature, a former New York City firefighter and a lobbyist with the Professional Firefighters Association of South Carolina. “It’s the first time we’ve ever run into something like this.”

Local government leaders across the state have voiced support for their firefighters, police officers and other employees working during the outbreak. But that may not prevent first responders from filing claims in every case.

When claims are filed — decisions that could come months from now — Pesature and other advocates are calling on state and local government to offer first responders the benefit of the doubt.

One piece of proposed state legislation would offer disability benefits to first responders forced into quarantine because of the virus. For workers who receive a diagnosis, the bill drafted by Rep. Russell Fry would grant them the presumption that they contracted the virus within the scope of their official duties.

“Our first responders are dealing with this all the time,” said Fry, a Republican from Surfside Beach. “Having this as a measure to help them is key to making sure that we are protecting those on the front line.”

Rep. Murrell Smith, a Sumter Republican and an attorney, has practiced workers’ compensation law. 

“If it places a presumption … that would be a great help for them,” Smith said.

“I think it’s a very good idea,” added Smith, who is also the chief budget writer in the state House of Representatives.

The legislation would cover firefighters, paramedics, emergency medical technicians, and all state and local law enforcement officers, including corrections officers.

There’s no telling when the House could consider the bill. Fry said he will file the legislation when lawmakers agree to meet again in Columbia, a date that has not been set.

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Other state governments have moved to add protections for emergency workers during the outbreak.

Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee guaranteed workers’ compensation benefits to that state’s first responders and healthcare workers who have been forced to quarantine. Inslee took that step on March 5.

Last week, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended unemployment eligibility to first responders who become ill or quarantined.

It’s unclear what measures Gov. Henry McMaster could take to address the issue under South Carolina’s laws. Spokesman Brian Symmes said McMaster's office is reviewing the matter.

Either way, local governments have already begun addressing the possibility that their first responders will get sick, some with more clarity than others.

The city of Charleston will cover up to 80 hours of sick leave for any employee, though officials have not committed to extending that to additional hours for first responders.

The city uses a third-party firm to review all workers’ compensation claims.

“If the facts in any case showed that a COVID-19 illness was job-related, we would expect it to be covered,” spokesman Jack O'Toole said.

In the city of Columbia, what protections city hall would offer its first responders was an open question this week.

Victor Kemper, president of the Columbia Firefighters Association, said firefighters have wondered aloud if they’d have to use their vacation hours if they get sick. The uncertainty has dealt a blow to morale, he said.

In an interview, Chief of Staff Pamela Benjamin referred a reporter to an emergency update she sent to all city employees on March 18. However, the memo did not address sick leave. In a follow-up, she said the city will instruct any employee who suspects they contracted the virus to quarantine for 14 days and will offer paid leave.

The memo also stressed that coronavirus-related claims will not be covered under workers’ compensation “per State of South Carolina Workers’ Compensation regulations and guidance,” even though the state’s workers’ compensation laws make no mention of viruses.

Benjamin said she based her opinion on previous cases involving other viruses, like the flu. In an interview, City Manager Teresa Wilson said it’s too early for the city to take a stance on the issue and would await guidance from the state.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said he hadn’t seen last week’s memo.

He stressed that the city stands behind its first responders, noting that the Columbia City Council just passed an emergency $3 million package for its public safety departments. He also suggested that first responders who contract the virus ought to fall within workers' compensation protections.

“We want anyone who’s injured or ill — they should be covered,” he said.

Mikaela Porter contributed to this report. 

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.

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