SPRINGFIELD–Democratic and Republican state senators unanimously approved Comptroller Susana A. Mendoza’s Act-of-Duty bill to cover Chicago first responders severely stricken by COVID-19 in the days before vaccines were available.
The bill, which was unanimously approved by the state House of Representatives last month, now goes to Gov. Pritzker for his signature.
“My brother and all his fellow officers targeted by the city’s unfair policy are so grateful for today’s vote by the state Senate. We can’t say ‘Thank You!’ enough to Senators Cunningham, Senator Fowler, Representative Hoffman, Speaker Welch and all the legislators who fought for this,” Comptroller Mendoza said.
Comptroller Mendoza’s brother, Chicago Police Det. Sgt. Joaquin Mendoza, was the first COVID disability case to go before the city’s police disability board, which adopted a policy of not giving disability pensions to officers disabled by COVID.
“I watched in disbelief as the board’s majority inexplicably ruled against their own doctor’s findings and gave my brother only an Ordinary Disability benefit instead of a Duty Disability benefit, which means he’d only get 50% of his salary for five years and no health care insurance,” Comptroller Mendoza said.
Det. Sgt. Mendoza lost his kidneys, had five strokes and was left permanently disabled by COVID, the board’s doctor found.
Chicago Police Officer Diana Cordova-Nestad was detailed to an FBI wiretap room, where she caught a debilitating case of COVID. She now requires an oxygen tank. Hers was the next case to go before the board and was also denied. Another 18 or more officers are in the pipeline. The Act of Duty bill, once signed by Governor Pritzker, will require the board to recognize the officers’ disabilities.
“It’s not just Sergeant Mendoza – there are a few dozen other police officers, firefighters and paramedics in Chicago who are in the same position. I ask you to help me correct this injustice by voting ‘Yes,’” Chief Sponsor Senator Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago, told his fellow senators.
“This is very important legislation we move forward for the protection of our families,” said Chief co-sponsor Senator Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg.
Senators of both parties passed the bill 54-0.
Cunningham and State Rep. Jay Hoffman, D, Swansea, passed legislation during the height of the pandemic to ensure the state’s workers’ compensation law accounted for first responders who contracted COVID-19. It offered a “rebuttable presumption” that those who fell ill contracted the virus on the job.
However, as Sen. Cunningham explained to senators, the measure did not cover first responders in Chicago. “They are not a part of the state Workers’ Comp system. They have a separate disability system so those protections are not afforded to Chicago police officers and firefighters,” said Cunningham.
Ironically, Chicago Police Department officers killed by COVID in the days before vaccines were widely available are considered to have died in an “Act of Duty” under state law, so their families get full benefits. HB 3162 fixes state law to include that same “rebuttable presumption” of the illness being contracted by first responders in an act of duty for officers who lived through COVID as those who died.
"Frankly, cops shouldn’t have to die to be eligible for their benefits,” Comptroller Mendoza said. “And they shouldn’t have to spend thousands of dollars they don’t have, fighting the Pension Fund or court of appeals when their cases are legitimate.”