Departments weigh whether officers who die of COVID-19 should receive line-of-duty death benefits

VOLUSIA COUNTY, FLA. — Family and friends are planning to lay a Daytona Beach police officer to rest this week following his death from COVID-19.

Adam Webb, 37, is among a recent wave of first responders across the state who have died following a COVID-19 diagnosis. Across the country, more than 130 first responders have died so far this year from the virus.

READ: Daytona Beach police officer, 37, dies after being hospitalized with COVID-19

9 Investigates learned, though, that not all of these deaths will be considered for line-of-duty death benefits. It comes down to proving exposure at work, which is often difficult to do for an officer who may come into contact with many people throughout their workdays.

There is now a legislative effort underway to give all first responders the benefit of the doubt in the event of a COVID-19 death, but that won’t be heard by lawmakers for months.

READ: ‘Do it for your community’: Local law enforcement agencies encourage COVID-19 vaccinations

Before Webb’s death, the executive director of the Coastal Florida Police Benevolent Association told 9 Investigates the officer’s time spent in hospital was either being deducted from PTO or left unpaid, because COVID-19 had not been designated as a line-of-duty injury. Our questions to Daytona Beach police about the status of a final decision on any line-of-duty claim have not been answered, as the process is still fresh.

“That’s a shame. We think there’s a reasonable chance he contracted that at work, but proving it, and getting a worker’s compensation insurance carrier to accept that, is harder than most people realize,” Executive Director Mike Scudiero said.

READ: 3 Central Florida first responders died from COVID-19 complications this week

The Coastal Florida PBA represents thousands of first responders along the coast, from St. Lucie to Clay counties, and Scudiero said this issue is coming up daily as COVID-19 claims the lives of more first responders. Though most law enforcement and firefighters will have medical bills covered under insurance plans, the benefits vary greatly if an officer is considered to have died in the line of duty.

“Most agencies right now are flying by the seat of their pants on this: they really don’t have the direction, they’re waiting for clarity from the court system, the legislature, it’s really the wild, wild west right now,” Scudiero said.

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9 Investigates found that’s true in recent local cases, and can vary greatly from one agency to the next. For example, the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office has publicly stated that Detention Deputy Paul Luciano’s August COVID-19 death is considered “line of duty,” because they believe he contracted the virus while working inside the jail.

But in Orange County, a sheriff’s office spokesperson said that Deputy First Class Craig Seijo’s COVID-19 death is still being reviewed for potential line-of-duty death benefits. The same is true for Port Orange Police Officer Justin White’s death, and an Orange County corrections officer’s death as well.

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“It’s a very complicated legal issue. From a public policy perspective it’s a very simple issue: we should protect first responders if they get COVID on the job,” Attorney Geoff Bichler said.

Bichler specializes in first responder workman’s compensation claims. He points out that there are several pots of money available to help a fallen officer’s family, including a $150,000 death benefit under the workman’s compensation act, additional law enforcement death benefits under Chapter 112, and a line-of-duty death pension. However, the burden is placed on the grieving loved ones to prove how the virus was contracted.

“That’s one of the reasons we’ve suggested there needs to be a presumption in place,” Bichler said.

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A proposed change to state law would include COVID-19 in a list of ailments that would allow first responders the presumption that the virus was contracted on the job, which could level the playing field from agency to agency. However, that wouldn’t be heard by the legislature until January, and it may not be retroactive. It also currently includes a provision that requires first responders to get a fully FDA approved vaccine in order to qualify for protections.

For now, Bichler said first responders need to be doing an exposure report every time they believe they’ve come in contact with COVID-19 on the job.

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Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.