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Bill to ensure workers' compensation in COVID-19 cases appears dead in Virginia Senate

Bill to ensure workers' compensation in COVID-19 cases appears dead in Virginia Senate

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In this Sept. 2 photo Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, left, and Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, Jr., R-James City, right, have an animated discussion during the floor session in the temporary Virginia Senate chamber inside the Science Museum of Virginia.

RICHMOND — Faced with a major cost to local government, the Senate is not likely to consider legislation that would have required workers' compensation to pay for a wide range of local government employees who contract COVID-19.

The Senate Finance & Appropriations Committee declined on Wednesday to act on Senate Bill 5066, proposed by Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, leaving it to die as the panel prepares to focus on revisions to the state budget instead of new legislation.

Saslaw acknowledged that the bill would carry a steep price for local governments, which would have to pay workers' compensation claims by firefighters, law enforcement, health care workers, teachers who teach in person at least two days a week and, in an amendment by the committee, officers at regional jails.

"I don't think it will bankrupt governments, but in all honesty it does carry a price tag," he said.

Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, said the best estimate of the cost exceeded $100 million for localities, even before the committee added sworn officers at regional jails.

"Certainly, it is a well-meaning item, but I don't know how we'll pay for it," Newman said.

The legislation - presuming that COVID-19 cases are related to work for public employees covered by the bill - is similar to House Bill 5028, proposed by Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, that would extend that presumption to school board employees, as well as health care workers and police, fire and emergency medical employees. The House approved the bill by a 61-37 vote.

Neal Menkes, fiscal consultant to the Virginia Municipal League, said local governments oppose both bills.

"We're really concerned about the fiscal impact of these bills during a revenue crisis for local government," Menkes said in an interview.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, warned that the legislation would make in-person school instruction impossible because of the insurance cost.

"This is a policy decision I'm not willing to make right now," Petersen said.

Senate Finance Chairwoman Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, said she shares concerns about the cost of the bill as the state struggles with a projected $2.7 billion two-year budget shortfall with additional federal emergency aid unlikely.

"This is a lot of money for right now," she said.

Howell said the committee will no longer consider Senate bills, with the possible exception of an eviction moratorium proposed by Sen. Ghazhala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, that is tied to a budget proposal by Gov. Ralph Northam.

"We will then start working more intensely on the budget," she said.

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