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The Safeguarding America's First Responders Act - New Federal Law Provides Access to Death Benefits Program for Families of Public Safety Officers who Die as a Result of COVID-19

Firefighter with MaskThere have been nearly seven million confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States, with over 200,000 confirmed deaths. In Michigan alone, there have been over 130,000 confirmed cases and roughly 7,000 confirmed deaths. Certain employees working in the health field, including first responders, have been impacted significantly by COVID-19.

In a previous article, we discussed the Emergency Rules and Executive Orders promulgated by Governor Gretchen Whitmer, creating a rebuttable presumption that COVID-19 is a personal injury arising out of and in the course of employment for first response employees.

In response to the ongoing toll COVID-19 is taking on "first responders" and their families, the federal government recently enacted legislation to provide some financial relief for those most affected. The Safeguarding America’s First Responders Act (“SAFR”), a bill which received bi-partisan support, was signed into law on August 14, 2020. SAFR eases the burden of proof required for the receipt of death benefits payments of the Public Safety Officer Benefits Program where the cause of death was COVID-19. The program is administered by the United States Department of Justice and provides a one-time payment of $359,316.00, as well as monthly education assistance of $1,224.00, to the children or spouse of a deceased "public safety officer" who died as a result of a line of duty injury. 

Despite its stated intention to support "first responders," SAFR actually applies only to "public safety officers" as defined by 34 USC § 12084. A "public safety officer" includes but is not limited to: individuals servicing a public agency in an official capacity as a law enforcement officer, firefighter, or chaplain. It also includes a member of a rescue squad or ambulance crew so long as he or she is employed by a public agency or a non-profit entity serving the public. Paramedics and emergency medical technicians employed by private, for-profit agencies are exempt from this definition.

While the program previously covered deaths as a result of infectious diseases, SAFR was passed due in part to the difficulty in providing evidence that a virus was actually contracted in the line of duty. Under SAFR, unless competent medical evidence establishes that the death of a public safety officer was directly and proximately caused by something other than COVID-19 (or complications related thereto), the death of a public safety officer who was diagnosed with COVID-19 within 45 days of his or her last day of duty shall be presumed to be a personal injury in the line of duty, thereby triggering payment of the benefits discussed above.  

The presumption provided by SAFR runs from January 1, 2020 through December 31, 2021 and requires a diagnosis or other evidence indicating the decedent had COVID-19 at the time of death.

Notably, benefits payable under SAFR and the Public Safety Officer Benefit Program are “in addition to any other benefit that may be due from any other source.” The only exceptions - meaning the only circumstances in which coordination of SAFR benefits is permitted - are specifically delineated in the statute and refer to other federal programs providing benefits to the families of public safety officers injured or killed in the line of duty. Thus, there is no offset or coordination relating to the receipt of workers’ compensation benefits.

Conceivably, if a "public safety officer" (as defined by 34 USC 10284) were to die as a result of COVID-19, his or her dependents could be entitled both to death benefits under SAFR and death benefits under Section 321 of the Michigan Workers’ Disability Compensation Act. Of course, receipt of workers’ compensation death benefits is predicated upon a showing that the death was caused by the deceased employee’s work. For an in-depth look at the unique workers' compensation issues related to the compensability of deaths allegedly resulting from COVID-19, please see our previous article.

Please do not hesitate to call a member of our practice group with any questions you may have. As always, we are here to help:

Alicia Birach...248.785.4172...abirach@fosterswift.com
Mike Cassar...517.371.8110...mcassar@fosterswift.com
Brian Goodenough (Practice Group Leader)...517.371.8147...bgoodenough@fosterswift.com
Tyler Olney...248.538.6352...tolney@fosterswift.com
Mike Sanders...517.371.8210...msanders@fosterswift.com

Categories: COVID-19 and Workers' Compensation, Legislative Updates, Workers' Compensation

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