By Jeremy Gorner
CHICAGO – A measure that would make it easier for Chicago first responders to get full disability benefits if they become ill with COVID-19 gained traction Thursday as it passed through a state legislative committee.
State Rep. Jay Hoffman, the lead sponsor of the bill, said during the measure that it would automatically be presumed that the working conditions of Chicago police officers and firefighters directly led to them contracting COVID-19, which led to a disability.
Hoffman, a top Democrat from downstate Swansea, told the House Personnel and Pensions Committee that “for whatever reason” that condition was not included in a 2021 law setting rules for frontline workers to receive compensation after contracting the disease.
“This is unacceptable. It was an oversight. And we’re here to fix it,” Hoffman said.
The bill passed 9-0 in committee and is expected to be debated on the floor in the next few weeks. If it passes the full House, it will then move to the Senate.
The bill was inspired by the brother of Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, whose brother, Chicago police Sgt. Joaquin Mendoza, contracted COVID-19 and became seriously ill, but was denied full disability benefits by the Policemen’s Annuity & Benefit Fund of Chicago.
Mendoza accused the city of setting impossible standards for police officers like her brother to receive full benefits and criticized Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s political appointees on the pension board for their decision. Lightfoot has denied that she had any influence on the board’s decision.
[EARLIER: Chicago mayor, state comptroller spar over benefits to cops disabled by COVID-19]
The state law would apply to Chicago police officers, firefighters and paramedics who became ill from the virus from March 9, 2020, to June 30, 2021. If they were previously denied duty disability benefits, they could receive “retroactive duty disability benefits.”
Mendoza has said her brother contracted COVID-19 in 2020 — before the availability of the vaccine — while working 17 straight days on the job. He spent 72 days in hospital, suffered kidney failure, lost the use of his left arm and suffered five strokes.
Mendoza told the House committee Thursday that her brother is on general disability, “which essentially acknowledges that he is disabled, but says that because he could not prove what specific act of duty as a police officer led him to contract COVID,” could he did not acquire full duty services.
On-duty disability provides 75% of the officer’s salary and free health insurance. In case of general disability, an officer receives 50% compensation and must pay for health care.
Under the law, a family of a police officer who died of COVID-19 from March 9, 2020 to June 30, 2021 was entitled to 75% of the officer’s salary annually.
“You shouldn’t be punished for living,” Mendoza said. “You should also be able to access your healthcare and disability benefits if you survive COVID but are unable to return to work.”
Mendoza and Lightfoot held dueling news conferences on the issue the week before Lightfoot lost his February 28 re-election bid. While Mendoza accused Lightfoot of being neglectful of officers like his brother, the mayor defended the pension board’s 4-3 decision to deny him the benefits in 2022. The decision, which included four “no” votes by Lightfoot appointees, was also upheld in court , after Joaquin Mendoza challenged it.
Mendoza, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2019 against Lightfoot, has insisted that the timing of her decision to go public with her brother’s story had nothing to do with the mayoral race. Before the legislative committee Thursday, Mendoza said her brother’s condition “is tragic” and she couldn’t even talk about it before without crying.
“But I hope that through that tragedy,” Mendoza said, pausing for a moment before her voice cracked with emotion, “we can fix this for everyone else.”
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