Yesterday, Governor Evers signed into a law a sweeping COVID-19 relief package.
Part of that legislation would give first responders workers’ compensation benefits if they were exposed to COVID-19.
But the law requires first responders to prove they were exposed to the disease while on the job.
Earlier today, Madison’s acting Chief of Police Vic Wahl called for extra protections for first responders. The acting chief wrote in a blog post that the restrictions do not adequately provide for first responders.
“They will only get workers’ compensation if we can prove exposure to someone who has tested positive, and that’s a very high bar in practicality,” said Wahl. “Just means that, generally, cops are not going to be able to get workers’ comp if they get COVID-19. If a first responder comes down COVID-19 and cannot satisfy a workers’ comp claim, and they’re basically just on their own.”
Wahl says this is a problem because it can be very difficult to prove when exposure occurred.
Mark Cohen is the executive director of the Wisconsin EMS Association, which represents emergency medical personnel across the state. He says that due to privacy laws, hospitals might not even tell first responders if they came into contact with someone who is infected.
“The hospitals wrongly believe that they, because of HIPAA, can’t report back to the first responder who the patient was,” said Cohen. “If they are notified, they’re notified four or five days later. It’s next to impossible, currently, for them to know where they got it from and who the patient was, because they don’t get that information.”
He says him and other first responder groups are trying to get more protections and funding from the state government.
First responders are not considered essential services under state law, and while some municipalities do consider them essential, many others don’t. Many first responders are volunteers, and therefore receive little support from the state and federal governments. Chris Anderson, the president of the Professional Ambulance Association of Wisconsin, says that personal protective equipment is being stretched thin among first responders. He says while it’s enough for now, that could change in the future.
“If we see a surge, we’re going to go through the equipment a lot quicker than we have been,” said Anderson. “Everyone has been scratching and clawing to buy as much as they can, and we’ve been paying the prices that the market demands, so it’s adding a significant cost to every call we go on. Which, that’s hard to absorb. Right now, today, yeah, we feel pretty good about it. But that’s one of the uncertainties.”
Anderson says that the current policy is to treat each person who calls as thought they were infected.
But while emergency responders in Wisconsin are tight on personal protective equipment, some places are even tighter on personnel. Cohen says because first responders are frequently volunteers who work another job, some of them have had to stop. He says this has led to a situation where people can call 911, but they might not get a response.
“Employers are mandating that those who also volunteer with their towns’ EMS departments are not permitted to do so any longer,” said Cohen. “For fear of getting sick while transporting a COVID-positive patient, and then the first responder getting sick and being out of their regular full-time job, or bringing that back with them to their full-time job. So, it’s really kind of a no-win situation in that they need these folks, they need EMTs to run when the calls come and go help, but if they’re not permitted to, then there will be nobody there to get the patients.”
Cohen says that in areas with denser populations, such as Green Bay, Madison, and Milwaukee, first responders are paid positions. But that’s not the case in more rural areas.
During a press call today, Governor Evers said that it was important to make sure first responders were able to claim workers compensation.
“We will do whatever we can to make it fair that workers’ compensation is provided to those healthcare workers and those first responders and finding ways to make sure that it’s easy to make that happen,” said Evers. “They’re doing the hard work. We need to give them a hand.”