In my nearly 30 years of practice, I have had the privilege of representing several hundred first responders, police officers and firefighters who suffered injuries while serving and protecting the citizens of their communities. These front-line heroes never hesitated to answer a call for help or to protect a person’s property and in doing so, frequently sustained an injury. Some of these injuries were so serious that the first responder was unable to continue working in his or her chosen profession. The compensation these injured first responders received under the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act, the Public Employees Disability Act, and under the various Pension Codes, in small part, compensated them for their sacrifices.
This year, for the first time, these courageous first-responders faced a new risk – the COVID-19 virus. This virus that has spread so relentlessly through most every community, offered no quarter to the police officers and firefighters who continued to perform their job duties, serving their communities. I, and several of the attorneys here at Anesi Ozmon, have received numerous calls from first responders who have contracted this virus and are subsequently quarantined and recovering from this disease. To our surprise and dismay, many of these first responders are advising us that their departments and municipalities are taking the position that this condition/disease was not contracted at work and will not be considered as a work-related injury. As a result, these first responders are being forced to use their accumulated vacation, sick and compensatory time to continue to receive their paychecks rather than being paid pursuant to the Public Employee Disability Act (PEDA) or the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act.
In response to this, the attorneys at Anesi Ozmon have advised these first responders that under a new amendment to the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act and Occupational Diseases Act, passed by the state legislature and signed by Governor Pritzker in June of this year, first responders, who are diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus between March 30, 2020, and December 31, 2020, are “presumed” to have contracted the virus as a result of their job duties and are entitled to benefits provided for in the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act. This “presumption” would also arguably allow them to recover benefits provided by the Public Employee Disability Act (PEDA). The departments and municipalities should not be forcing these first responders to utilize their accrued vacation, sick and compensatory time while they are recovering and are quarantined if it is clear they contracted the virus from exposure that occurred while working, either from a co-worker or the general public.
To be clear, the new amendment to the Act states that it is a “rebuttable presumption,” meaning the employer can present evidence to attempt to show the first responder contracted the virus at home or somewhere other than at work. However, that would be very difficult to prove if the first responder can show he or she was exposed to another person or co-worker, who ultimately tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, and/or no other family member had been diagnosed with the virus prior to their diagnosis.
In addition to being compensated for their lost time while recovering from this virus, first responders may seek compensation under the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act for any permanent disability that may result from contracting the virus. Physicians and other medical experts are now learning that this virus can cause long-term health problems, such as scarring of the lung tissue, decreased function of the kidneys and liver, and even blood clotting issues. Although most individuals will recover from this virus within a short period of time, the long-term effects of the virus are yet to be determined.
If you are a first responder who has contracted the COVID-19 virus or if you know of any first responders who have contracted this virus, feel free to contact the attorneys at our firm to discuss the rights and benefits available to you under the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act, the Public Employee Disability Act (PEDA) and the pension statutes. We are here to assist you in any way we can.