Capitol Police at 'Reopen Virginia Rally' in Richmond April 2020

Capitol Police stand along Main Street during the "Reopen Virginia Rally" in Richmond on April 22, 2020. 

Courtesy of Virginia Mercury

Legislation extending COVID-19-related workers’ compensation coverage to first responders, teachers and health care workers hit a snag on Wednesday when a Virginia Senate committee delayed a vote on its version of the bill.

Sen. Louise Lucas, D-18th, of Portsmouth, the chamber’s president pro tempore, successfully moved to “pass by” (or postpone a decision) on the legislation for the day. But committee chairwoman Sen. Janet Howell, D-32nd, of Fairfax, later announced that members would only take up legislation from the House for the remainder of the special session — effectively stopping the bill in committee.

The legislation from Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-35th, of Fairfax, largely mirrored a bill that successfully passed through the House of Delegates last week. Senators on both sides of the aisle, however, argued Wednesday that the potential fiscal impact of the bill was prohibitive as Virginia grapples with an anticipated $2.7 billion budget shortfall over the next two years. 

Those concerns make the future of the House bill uncertain as it switches to the opposing chamber for consideration. Del. Jay Jones, D-89th, of Norfolk, who sponsored the legislation in the House, said that he hadn’t discussed it with senators before the committee decision.

And while the House version picked up support from a handful of Republican delegates in a 61-37 final vote, it’s unclear if it will receive the same bipartisan backing in the Senate.

“I’m certainly hopeful that the bill will ultimately get to the governor,” Jones said in a phone interview later on Wednesday. “It’s a priority of the House Democratic caucus, it’s very important to me, and I have all the respect in the world for people who put themselves on the line for us during the pandemic. We need to do right by them in this process.”

Eligibility for workers’ compensation has been a significant concern in multiple industries throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In July, the state’s largest school insurer said compensation was unlikely for school employees who contract COVID-19 — a particular concern in the 64 local districts with some form of in-person instruction time. 

First responders have also steadfastly supported the legislation amid a pandemic that has sickened multiple police officers and firefighters across the state. 

Coronavirus is currently considered an “ordinary disease of life” rather than one with an elevated risk for certain professions. Both bills aimed to reclassify it as an occupational disease for some industries, which would mean that employees would be presumed to have contracted the virus on the job unless employers or insurers can prove otherwise.

Opponents, though, have said that potential claims would have an outsize burden on localities whose budgets are already struggling during the ongoing epidemic. “We’re concerned that the price tag of this bill, at a time when our budgets are strained, it’s too much for us to take on,” said J.T. Kessler, a lobbyist for the Virginia School Boards Association, at a House committee hearing in late August.

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