Since March, about 100 of Fairfax County’s firefighters and paramedics have tested positive for the coronavirus, which its union says is part of the hazard that comes with emergency calls involving residents who’ve been infected, then sleeping in sometimes crowded fire stations for days at a time.
The union, a powerful political force in Fairfax that has helped several local officials get elected, is pushing the county to change its workers’ compensation approval process so that it accounts for the higher risk of infection they say they regularly face.
“We’re not sitting inside office cubicles,” said Ron Kuley, the firefighters’ union president, who tested positive last month and was briefly hospitalized. “We respond to covid clusters. We work with citizens who tells us they’re covid positive and many who don’t tell us. The presumption is: Yeah, we got it from work.”
At issue is whether a covid-19 diagnosis counts as an “occupational disease” if the virus has also infected thousands of other people — present inside grocery and retail stores as well as the homes visited by first responders during emergency calls.
Kuley’s union says the disease is an acute occupational hazard for first responders. Fairfax County officials say covid-19 is considered “an ordinary disease of life” under Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act.
For an employee with a positive diagnosis, a workers’ compensation claim can only be approved if contact tracing determines that they were exposed to the virus while carrying out their duties, county officials said.
“In order for an ‘ordinary disease of life’ to be considered compensable, the result of the claim investigation must find clear and convincing evidence that the disease exists and arose out of and in the course and scope of employment, and did not result from causes outside of employment,” the county said in a statement.
Statewide, workers’ compensation claims related to covid-19 have not had much success.
Of the 2,080 such claims filed so far, only 195 have been approved for some sort of compensation, according to the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission, which oversees the state program.
It’s unclear how many of those claims were filed by firefighters and other first responders.
But the state’s lead advocacy group for firefighters said the rejections are a growing problem for rescue workers. After testing positive, many are granted small amounts of sick leave and little to no compensation by their departments, said Robert Bragg, president of the Virginia Professional Firefighters umbrella group for local unions.
“We don’t know where this is going to end up,” Bragg said. “We don’t know, 10 years from now, if you’re symptomatic today, what kind of damage it’ll do to your body.”
Bragg’s organization has been trying to get the state to define covid-19 as an occupational disease for first responders.
During the General Assembly’s most recent session, a bill proposing to do that passed the Democrat-controlled House of Delegates on a 61-to-37 vote. But the legislation died in the Senate’s finance and appropriations committee.
Bragg attributed that to the fact that health care workers, teachers and other non-rescue workers were added as protected groups, sparking concerns about the cost to the state’s already burdened workers’ compensation system.
In Fairfax, the bulk of the 59 coronavirus-related workers’ compensation claims filed so far have come from firefighters.
All but 14 of those claims were rejected after contact tracers could not establish a definite link between the exposure and the job, county officials said.
Gregory P. Perigard, an attorney who represents several of the firefighters whose claims were denied, argued that covid-19 should be regarded as a respiratory disease. That would make the claims eligible under a separate state workers’ compensation code that was designed for cases involving lung ailments related to firefighting, such as asbestosis, he said.
Under that code, the burden of proof falls on the employer instead of the employee — meaning that Fairfax County would have to convince the state workers’ compensation commission that a firefighter more likely caught the virus away from work, Perigard said.
Kuley said there have been several outbreaks — consisting of two or more cases — inside county fire stations.
That has particularly been the case, he said, during the most recent surge of coronavirus cases in the Washington region that drove Fairfax County’s seven-day average for new infections to record highs this month, before dipping slightly to land at 375 on Saturday.
With those increases have come more chances for a rescue worker to get infected while out on a call, then bring back the virus to the fire station — where those on the same 24-hour shift eat together and sleep in close quarters, Kuley said.
“Just because we’re wearing 100 percent of our PPE doesn’t mean that it’s 100 percent effective,” he said.
Fairfax officials said their hands are tied by the state code that considers covid-19 an “ordinary disease of life,” requiring them to investigate the claims for proof of exposure while on the job.
But county officials said they are working to do more to help employees who’ve become infected. The county allows employees who’ve contracted the virus while working to take pandemic leave, generally up to 80 hours. They may also take an extended family medical leave if the illness is severe, officials said.
In January, the county Board of Supervisors will consider allocating federal Cares Act money for hazard pay awarded to county employees who are facing the most risk of exposure, including some firefighters, said Jeff C. McKay (D), the board’s chair.
“I’m grateful for our county employees as they continue to put the needs of our community above their own and am always concerned about their health and safety,” McKay said in a statement.
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