FEB. 21, 2023

Mendoza’s brother, Det. Sgt. Joaquin Mendoza, is one of 20 or more officers who could be left without benefits by the city’s policy of refusing duty disability benefits to the officers severely affected by COVID before vaccines were available.

CHICAGO – Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza Tuesday announced a legislative effort to protect Chicago Police officers and firefighters severely injured and disabled by COVID before vaccines were available. 

Mendoza’s brother, Chicago Police Det. Sgt. Joaquin Mendoza, spent 72 days in the hospital fighting for his life after being stricken with COVID. The disease gave him five strokes and took out his kidneys, leaving him in need of dialysis for the rest of his diminished life. He has no use of his left arm, and he walks with a cane. 

But when Det. Sgt. Mendoza went before The Policemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago for his act-of-duty disability pension, the board said, “No.” Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s appointees on the board along with the lieutenant’s representative created an impossible standard of proof that ensures no officer will ever get the act-of-duty disability pension, stating that even though Mendoza had worked 17 days straight on the job when he caught COVID, he could not point to a particular “act of duty” in that time when he caught it. 

They made the same ruling with the next officer in Mendoza’s situation and there are 18 or more other officers in similar circumstances in the pipeline, according to lawyers who handle these cases. Ironically, the Fund’s board grants officers’ families full act-of-duty benefits if the officer dies from COVID but not if they live. 

Former Chicago Police Dept. Chief of Detectives Eugene Roy, who spent four years on the Annuity and Benefits Fund Board from 2003 to 2006, said sources involved with the fund’s board related that “Orders have come down from the 5th floor that nobody is to be granted a duty disability benefits for COVID, and that the mayor's appointees on the board vote accordingly.”  

“For the mayor’s office, through her appointed representatives on this board, to stab our injured first responders in the back like this is unconscionable,” Comptroller Mendoza said. “This is the ultimate act of betrayal to tell our first responders that they are worth more dead than alive.” 

HB 3162, sponsored by State Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, and State Sen. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago, would correct the discrepancy between officers who live and die through COVID infections, creating a rebuttable presumption that officers severely injured by COVID before COVID vaccines were available, were injured in an “act of duty” just like the officers who died from COVID. 

“Throughout the pandemic, our first responders stepped up for all of us, putting their health on the line to continue their duty of protecting and serving our communities,” Rep. Hoffman said. “The least we can do is ensure that those who received a life-altering disability receive the financial help they need right now. I appreciate the opportunity to partner with the Comptroller on this legislation to help our heroes.” 

Hoffman filed the bill Friday, the deadline for introducing bills in the Illinois General Assembly. Cunningham has companion legislation in the state Senate.  

“This legislation is a critical step towards recognizing the sacrifices made by our firefighters and police officers during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Sen. Cunningham, who represents portions of Chicago and the Southwest Suburbs. “By establishing a presumption that those who became disabled due to exposure to the virus did so in the line of duty, we are ensuring that these heroes receive the support and benefits they deserve. I am proud to be supportive of this legislation, and I am grateful to all of our first responders for their unwavering commitment to keeping our communities safe." 

The bill aims to make sure first responders including firefighters are covered. 

"Our union brothers and sisters who got COVID stocking shelves at a grocery store were treated better by their employer than a Chicago firefighter or paramedic who contracted COVID in the performance of their duties has been treated by the city of Chicago," said Jim Tracy, president of Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2. />

Chicago City Council members appeared with Comptroller Mendoza at her news conference pledging to introduce a resolution backing “speedy passage” of HB 3162. 

“How much more contempt can Mayor Lightfoot’s administration show to our first responders than to tell them they must die to get the city’s respect?” demanded Ald. Brian Hopkins. “This ridiculous policy that officers who died from COVID are considered to have caught it during an act of duty but those who live were not – that has to end.” 

Ald. Matt O’Shea, Ald. Silvana Tabares, Ald. Rod Sawyer, Ald. Anthony Beale, Ald. Gil Villegas and Ald. Anthony Napolitano also stood in support of the bill. 

Comptroller Mendoza also announced Tuesday that her brother’s attorney had filed a notice of intent Monday to appeal the circuit court’s wrong-headed ruling affirming the Annuity and Benefit Fund’s unconscionable decision. 

In his ruling affirming the board’s decision, Judge Thaddeus Wilson inexplicably wrote: “Throughout the 10 days before Plaintiff was diagnosed, no one from Area 5 Headquarters tested positive for COVID-19.” Meanwhile, records show cases of at least 35 officers in the building who had gone home with COVID during that time – which the judge obviously ignored or did not read. 

Mendoza’s former commander, Eric Winstrom, now police chief of Grand Rapids, Michigan, called the Fund’s decision not to grant Mendoza a duty disability pension “A travesty. I was shocked. He was a guy who would have done the job for free, the first to work and the last to leave, super passionate about his work, an example to his subordinates. If every detective sergeant at the Chicago Police Department had half the heart and half the work ethic of Joaquin Mendoza, no one would ever want to leave CPD. He was a superstar.”