A paramedic in a hazmat suit from the Copiague F.D....

A paramedic in a hazmat suit from the Copiague F.D. transports a patient into the emergency room at Good Samaritan Hospital on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. Credit: James Carbone

ALBANY — Enhanced death benefits paid to beneficiaries of state and local workers who die of COVID-19 while on the job would be paid through the state pension system, which is funded in part by property taxpayers, according to proposals by legislators and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Eight public workers have so far died of COVID-19, according to the state comptroller’s office on Tuesday.

The proposals would add essential workers to an already existing accidental death benefit that generally is paid to families of police officers and firefighters who die on the job, state officials said. The money would be paid through state and local pension systems and would apply only to public sector workers.

They include health care workers at public hospitals, police, teachers and refuse collectors who were required to work in their government job during the state of emergency.

The cost of providing these death benefits is being calculated. The funding would be paid by all local governments through their employer contribution to the pension system. 

Typically, the cost of accidental death benefits — usually fewer than a dozen are paid out a year — hasn’t had a significant impact on the employer contribution, according to state comptroller's office. Public pension systems, however, are already hurting after the plummet of the stock market reduced the value and return of investments.

Any added cost wouldn’t be applied to government budgets until 2023.

“I'm sure many people were afraid to show up, but they showed up anyway, and they deserve not just words of thanks but actions that show the appreciation,” Cuomo said.

The benefit, however, wouldn't go to the beneficiaries of grocery clerks, health care workers in private hospitals and nursing homes, and others in the private sector who die of the virus while on the job. There is currently no program or state funding to provide a similar benefit to workers in the private sector, according to the Cuomo administration.

On Monday, the governor and legislators proposed that public sector workers who die of the virus get an “accidental death benefit” paid to his or her survivors. For workers with more seniority, the accidental death benefit would provide more compensation to families than the “ordinary death benefit” that all public workers would receive.

The ordinary death benefit is a lump sum paid to public workers’ beneficiaries valued at the worker’s average salary times the number of years in service, up to three years, according to the comptroller’s office.

The accidental death benefit is based on 50% of the worker’s final average salary paid annually to survivors and is tax free.

In the legislature, bills were introduced this week to provide added death benefits to public workers who died of COVID-19 and “deemed to have died as a natural and proximate result of an accident sustained in the performance of duty.”

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