A Congressional Effort to Aid COVID Essential Workers and their Families

May 23, 2020

GIVING FULL MEASURE: Robert Elijiah, 61, a member of IBEW Local 864 making his case for his union on Dec. 12 for his fellow PATH train workers. The beloved PATH Power Rail Mechanic died from COVID19 on April 23. He leaves behind his wife, three children and 12 grandchildren.
Credit Port Authority of NY & NJ

As states across the nation open up their economies, we are just beginning to get a sense of the toll on the families of essential workers, like nurses and firefighters, who either died in the pandemic or maybe permanently disabled from their bout with COVID19.

It should come as no surprise that the members of Congress from our region that led the charge for the passage of the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund are teaming up to introduce the Pandemic Heroes Compensation Act.

WBGO News Director Doug Doyle chats with WBGO contributor Bob Hennelly who is also a reporter with the Chief Leader, where he covers City Hall, transportation and emergency services.

DOYLE: Thanks for joining us Bob. So, this would be a national program and who would it cover?  

HENNELLY: It would indeed. We are talking about health care workers, first responders, postal workers, grocery workers, pretty much anyone who had to leave their home to go to work while their state was under an emergency stay at home order. Here’s Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney on the Zoom press conference I was on making her case for it.

MALONEY: “How can you expect our essential workers to go to their work and perform it to help this country to keep moving forward. We are all applauding them every night. It is my favorite time of the day. But they need a lot more than applause and thank yous. They need help and that’s what this bill does.”

HENNELLY: And Doug, the bill has bi-partisan support with Congressman Peter King as one of the top sponsors of the legislation. Here he is during this call explaining why he thinks this proposal will garner considerable support from his GOP colleagues, something we rarely see these days.

KING: “We had WW II and countries decided they had to win the war. This is a war we are in with this pandemic. Whatever the cost is we have to get it done. We have to make sure that all of those workers are fully compensated for any injury to their health or death and their families have to be taken care of.”  

DOYLE: Didn’t the 9/11 bills like the Zadroga Act and the 9/11 Victims’ Compensation Fund take years to get through Congress? Did the sponsors address that concern?  

HENNELLY: Congressman Jerry Nadler did. He believes this time [unlike 9/11] it will be easier to make the case that the essential workers death or permanent disability is linked to their service and their exposure to the COVID19 virus.  

NADLER: “For years people denied there was a causal relationship between people who were getting sick and the fact they had gone into the buildings or had worked on the pile. So, it took years to convince many people that in fact that these heroes had in fact suffered and suffered an injury for which we had to give a redress.”

HENNELLY: The Congressman also pointed out that, unlike with the 9/11 World Trade Center bills, there is substantial evidence as this plays out in America’s heartland and rural communities, it is not just about New York City but the entire nation.  

DOYLE: What is the timeline for this legislation?  And do we have a sense of the scale of what we are talking about in terms of just how many families have been touched by this?  

HENNELLY: The sponsors are looking for a mark-up final draft by the Fall and getting it on the floor. They also have to have budget scoring by the Congressional Budge Office. And as far as the scale, Doug it is something that really hasn’t been focused on by the media. We know just in New York City we lost 270 civil servants responding in this crisis and that doesn’t include private sector essential workers working in the utility sector or in food distribution areas. So, it is really anyone’s guess but there is no doubt that we are just coming to terms with some of the long-term health consequences. I have done reporting that shows with the PATH train workers unions, that’s the train that runs between New Jersey and New York. They are finding cases, like the normally healthy young man in his late twenties who was working and had a bout with COVID and found himself dealing with blood clots in his legs.  

DOYLE: Before we let you go Bob, you mentioned you had a follow-up on last week’s reporting about Mayor de Blasio extending for 45 days the health insurance for the families of the city workers who perished in the pandemic. What’s new on that? 

HENNELLY: What the Mayor did this week was he is going to support a move in Albany to ensure that any worker who has been killed through this pandemic through being in service during this time that they have what is called a line-of-duty death presumption. That means that the family and their survivors can make claims on the various pension systems which can entitle them in a significant increase in the payout. It could mean tens of thousands of additional dollars to the families and long- term support for widows and their surviving children.”

DOYLE: Bob Hennelly, reporter with the Chief-Leader. Thanks for joining as always on the WBGO Journal.

HENNELLY: My pleasure.