First responders put themselves on the line every day when they rush to the site of an accident or a citizen in need. This is even more true in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially since so much is unknown about the virus. Those carrying the disease may not have any symptoms, yet they may be spreading it to everyone they are near, including first responders who arrive to help with no thought for their own safety.
South Carolina first responders are now asking if they will be eligible for Worker’s Compensation if they contract COVID-19 in the course of their work. The answer, unfortunately, is far from simple.
William Pesature, the Vice President of the South Carolina Firefighters Association, feels there should be only one answer this question. “We are willing to do our job which sometimes is ugly, but we also expect our municipalities and states to take care of us at the same time,” he said.
Hardeeville’s Fire Chief, Joey Rowell, and Mayor Harry Williams agree. “If we don’t stand behind our first responders, shame on us,” Williams said when it was discovered that such claims could be denied under the current wording of the Worker’s Comp law. Pandemics are not covered under South Carolina worker’s compensation law, which means that first responders may not be covered if they come down with the coronavirus.
The State Legislature is in recess due to COVID-19, but Representative Russell Fry is listening to the concerns of those trying to protect first responders.
“The State of South Carolina recognizes the tremendous job that healthcare workers and first responders are doing in this pandemic, and we need to put our best foot forward to make sure that we care for them,” he said. “If there is a way to do it administratively or through an executive order, I am completely hopeful that we can do that…if not the way that the bill is currently drafted, it would retroactively apply so that the people could get those benefits.”
What does the SC law say about contagious diseases and the threat to paramedics, firefighters, and police officers? Executive Director Gary Cannon of the State Worker’s Compensation Commission released the wording of the law when asked to respond to this issue. Occupational diseases are addressed in Section 42-11-10 of the SC Code of Laws.
Testing and treatment of an employee exposed to a contagious disease is a question of law that requires a fact-specific legal analysis and ultimately can only be decided by a Commissioner at a Hearing. Nothing prevents an employee from filing a workers’ compensation claim if they believe they contracted a disease that is work-related. If the claim is denied by the employer, the employee has the right to request a hearing before a Commissioner. At the hearing, the Commissioner will hear the facts presented and render a decision after applying the facts of the case to the law. Anyone with questions regarding whether coverage applies to them under these circumstances should discuss with their employer.
William Pesature expressed the frustration of everyone involved in this struggle. “What the general public has to think about is at some point in time, the firefighters are going to start getting exposed and get quarantined,” he said. “There isn’t another fire fighter out there for them to go pick up off a tree and put them on a vehicle. They are going to start to lose manpower.”
In the meantime, first responders carry on, responding as they always do to disaster. Even if it could cost them their livelihood and their life.
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