AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Legislation to designate COVID-19 as a “presumptive illness” to allow compensation benefits and coverage for public safety employees passed out of the Texas House Tuesday.
House Bill 541, by State Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco passed 136-9 in the House chamber.
HB 541 seeks to make it easier for public safety employees like firefighters, police officers, and correctional officers to qualify for benefits and compensation “by establishing a presumption that SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19 was contracted in the scope of employment, subject to certain conditions,” according to a legislative analysis.
“While many of us were able to stay at home and work from our laptops, our first responders kept us safe and served our communities at a high level of risk to themselves and their families,” Patterson said after the vote.
“This bill ensures their workers’ compensation benefits, and if required, a line of duty death benefit, is enabled to care for them and their families,” he added.
The legislation earned the support of law enforcement advocates, who have been fighting for months to add COVID-19 to the list of illnesses that allow expanded eligibility of benefits.
Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order in the spring that covers first responders’ medical bills, but the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas said the families of the officers need more.
“It should be presumed that they contracted the illness in the line of duty. Currently, as it stands, an officer would have to prove that if it was questioned, which it has been in some of these cases,” CLEAT Public Affairs Coordinator Jennifer Szimanski explained in September. “They go to work every day they answer every call, and they should be covered if they are to contract the illness.”
According to the preliminary results of the House vote, nine lawmakers— all Republicans— voted against the measure: Kyle Biedermann of Fredericksburg, Briscoe Cain of Deer Park, Jeff Cason of Bedford, Tom Oliverson of Cypress, Matt Schaefer of Tyler, Bryan Slaton of Royse City, David Spiller of Jacksboro, Steve Toth of The Woodlands and Terry Wilson of Marble Falls.
“I think the bill itself has some flaws,” Spiller said by phone Tuesday. He said his concerns revolved how he thinks the bill would change worker’s compensation rates, which could have a domino effect for hospitals, cities, counties and emergency medical districts.
He also said there is “limited evidence you can offer” in presumptive illness cases, adding that he did not agree with waiving certain provisions of the labor code.
The other 8 legislators who voted against the bill did not immediately respond to an inquiry about why they voted no and what their concerns are with the legislation.
The Senate unanimously passed similar legislation, Senate Bill 22, the First Responders Pandemic Care Act, on April 21.