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Lawmakers debate comp for frontline COVID workers: 'Call us heroes? Prove it!'

Posted at 4:45 PM, Feb 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-22 18:27:07-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly agree that frontline healthcare workers and first responders should be able to apply for workers compensation if they contract COVID-19 on the job. With only a few days left during the 2021 special legislative session, the House of Delegates and Senate are split on when workers should be eligible to apply for those benefits.

Sponsors of the House bills (here and here) want a retroactive date of March 2020 for when healthcare workers and first responders could apply for compensation.

The Senate version sets a proactive date of July 1, 2021.

Lawmakers must come to a compromise by the time session ends.

Delegates Chris Hurst (D-Blacksburg) and Jay Jones (D-Norfolk) organized a press call Monday with Virginia nurses and firefighter associations to push for the retroactive presumption.

“It’s all about retroactive presumption to coincide with the start of the state of emergency back on March 12, 2020,” Del. Jones said. “It underscores our commitment to working people who have made the ultimate sacrifice to keep us safe.”

“We should say that COVID-19, for some professions is an occupational disease and should be retroactive,” Del. Hurst said.

Senate leaders did not publicly respond to the calls for retroactive presumption.

During hearings on the issue in the Senate, the price tag for backdating when workers could apply was a main point of contention.

“When we were looking at that, it had a price tag of about $50 million,” said Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) when addressing retroactive presumption last week.

Fiscal impact statements for both the House and Senate plans said that at this point the exact cost for the state could not be fully determined.

The Virginia Nurses Association and Virginia Professional Fire Fighters are backing the House versions.

“This has to be retroactive. We can’t leave any nurses behind. Then or now,” Mary Kay Goldschmidt, with the Virginia Nursing Association, said.

“If legislators want to call us heroes, that’s fine, we appreciate that. But, prove it with actions, not words,” John Wright with the Virginia Professional Firefighters Association, said.

The bills are expected to head to conference, where a group of six legislators will try to work out the final details.