By Jeremy Gorner
CHICAGO — A day before the state and federal governments’ COVID-19 mitigation protocols are set to expire, Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday signed into law a measure aimed at making it easier for Chicago’s first responders to acquire full benefits if they suffered long-term disability because of the virus.
The legislation was pushed by Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, whose brother, Chicago police Sgt. Joaquin Mendoza, was infected with COVID-19 and fell badly ill, but was denied full disability benefits by the Policemen’s Annuity & Benefit Fund of Chicago.
“I am super sad that it happened to my brother. … I absolutely am horrified by it and mortified by it,” Mendoza said during a signing ceremony at the Illinois State Capitol. “And in a terrible twist of fate, he and I are both thankful that it did happen to him because I wouldn’t have even known about it otherwise.”
Under the measure, it would automatically be assumed that Chicago police officers, firefighters and paramedics who suffered long-term disability from COVID-19 contracted the virus because of their working conditions.
The law will apply to Chicago police officers, firefighters and paramedics who got sick with the virus from March 9, 2020, through June 30, 2021. If they were previously denied a duty disability benefit they could acquire “a retroactive duty disability benefit.”
“For these first responders, serving and protecting wasn’t just their job, it’s been their calling,” Pritzker said. “There are no words to describe the anguish and pain, both physical and emotional, that they’ve been through. But when our first responders aren’t given their full due, the state of Illinois won’t let them down.”
Legislation passed during the height of the pandemic stipulated that first responders statewide would be entitled to various protections if they contracted COVID-19, and considered it would be automatically assumed that they caught the virus while on the job. But that law didn’t apply to Chicago police and firefighters because they’re on a separate disability system, state officials said.
The measure signed by Pritzker on Wednesday was passed unanimously by the House and Senate. It takes effect immediately.
“We do do things sometimes in a (bipartisan) fashion here, and we do it for the right reason. And this is one of those times,”state Rep. Jay Hoffman of Swansea, a top ranking House Democrat and one of the bill’s chief sponsors, said at Wednesday’s news conference.
The comptroller accused the city of Chicago of setting impossible standards for cops like her brother to receive full benefits and criticized Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s political appointees on the pension board for their decision. Lightfoot has denied that she had any influence over the board’s decision.
Mendoza has said her brother contracted COVID-19 in 2020 — before the availability of the vaccine — while working 17 straight days on the job. He spent 72 days in the hospital, suffered kidney failure, lost the ability to use his left arm and suffered a number of strokes.
Duty disability provides 75% of the officer’s salary and free health insurance. On ordinary disability, an officer receives 50% compensation and must pay for health care.
Mendoza has said her brother is on ordinary disability, which she’s said, “essentially acknowledges that he’s disabled but says that because he could not prove which specific act of duty as a police officer led him to contracting COVID,” he wasn’t entitled to the full duty disability benefits.
Susana Mendoza and Lightfoot held dueling news conferences about the issue the week before Lightfoot lost her bid for reelection on Feb. 28. While Mendoza accused Lightfoot of being neglectful of officers like her brother, the mayor defended the pension board’s 4-3 decision to deny him the benefits in 2022.
The decision, which included four “no” votes from Lightfoot appointees, was also upheld in court after Joaquin Mendoza challenged it.
Susana Mendoza, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2019 against Lightfoot, has insisted that the timing of her decision to go public with her brother’s story had nothing to do with the mayoral election.
“This was an injustice that was done and frankly it should not have taken legislation to fix this,” Mendoza said at the news conference.