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LI state lawmakers propose bill to aid first responders in case of coronavirus illness

Volunteer firefighters from the Oceanside Fire Department train

Volunteer firefighters from the Oceanside Fire Department train at the Nassau County Fire Service Academy in Old Bethpage in 2019. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Two Long Island state lawmakers have introduced legislation that will guarantee police officers, firefighters and other first responders will receive medical treatment and other benefits if they become sick on the job from coronavirus.

A proposed law from State Sen. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood) would ensure that police, correctional, parole and probation officers would receive sick leave and line of duty benefits if they become ill or die from the disease. Medical tests and treatment would also be covered under the bill, Martinez said. The bill would also prevent time away from the job while recovering from COVID-19 from being accrued leave. 

“First responders are in the line of fire every day,” said Martinez, who introduced her bill on March 12. “We have to take care of them just like they take care of us.” 

A bill sponsored by State Sen. John Brooks (D-Seaford), meanwhile, would amend laws that provide benefits to volunteer firefighters and volunteer EMTs to make sure they will also receive treatment and other support if they become sick or die from coronavirus.

Martinez and Brooks said they were inspired to introduce bills because of the federal government’s slow response last year to calls to increase funding for the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, which provided benefits for first responders who got sick while working in the rubble of Ground Zero. 

“A first responder going on a call should not have to worry about what might happen to him or his family,” said Brooks, who introduced his bill on March 13.

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Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said he supports any legislation that protects members and their health.

“I still have members suffering from cancer from 9/11,” Ryder said. 

Cops, firefighters and other first responders, Suffolk Police Benevolent Association president Noel DiGerolamo said, know they assume risks when they sign up for their jobs. But they can’t work from home like so many others are doing during the coronavirus crisis, and they can’t do their jobs properly if they put fears of long-term illness and financial ruin ahead of their duty to assist residents. He applauded the proposals from Martinez and Brooks and urged legislators to pass them quickly. 

“When first responders respond to a call for help and go to assist at a scene, they can’t worry that the department or the state will turn their backs on them,” DiGerolamo said. “First responders don’t have time to worry if they get sick and die that their families will be hurt financially.” 

Brooks, a former chief with the Seaford Fire Department, has also introduced a bill that would nearly double workers’ compensation-type benefits for volunteer firefighters and EMTs who get sick or are injured in the line of duty to $934 a month. Those payments have not been increased for decades, he said. 

Volunteer firefighters and EMTs are often taken for granted, Brooks said. “These are individuals who save us a lot of money,” he said. “We need to recognize how much good these people do in the community.”

There are about 1,800 volunteer fire departments across New York state, according to John D’Alessandro, secretary of the Firefighters Association of the State of New York, including 71 in Nassau and 108 in Suffolk. Those agencies have roughly 90,000 volunteer firefighters, he said. 

“Any legislation that helps protect first responders in the line of duty from COVID-19 or anything else, we would support,” D’Alessandro said.

"This is the right thing to do for our first responders and their families and is a critical step to take to make sure our first responders have the peace of mind to do their jobs," said James McDermott, president of the Nassau County Police Benevolent Association. "I urge the Senate and Assembly to pass this bill as soon as possible and protect the men and women that protect New York."

Brooks said some Republicans have already expressed support for his bill, which he hopes will contain retroactive provisions allowing first responders to receive benefits if they got sick from coronavirus after the proposal is passed. 

Martinez said she also expected her bill will provide benefits to first responders who become sick after it is passed. She does not believe there will be much opposition to her proposal. 

“At the end of the day,” she said, “it is the right thing to do.”


 

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