City of Bryan officials said this week they are committed to protecting the health of first responders, addressing concerns raised by the Bryan Firefighters Association about how the city would help those who contract COVID-19.
BFA President Daniel Buford said Thursday morning he is frustrated with some of the components of the city’s Wednesday statement. He added that he remains worried that first responders — who come in contact with people who have COVID-19 more frequently than other professions — could face challenges receiving compensation if they are diagnosed with the virus.
On July 14, Buford took his concerns, which he said BFA had been talking with city officials about for months, to Bryan city council during hear citizens. He said in his comments that the city of Bryan had refused to follow Texas Government Code chapter 607, which he said mandates that COVID-19 be included as an on-the-job illness or injury. In a Wednesday press release, the city of Bryan said that was untrue.
“Contrary to these statements, Texas law does NOT state that COVID-19 is automatically presumed to have been contracted on the job,” the release reads. “Rather, Texas workers’ compensation law covers an exposure to COVID-19. The city of Bryan has always and will continue to follow that process.”
Texas Government Code chapter 607 states that “A public safety employee who is exposed to a contagious disease is entitled to reimbursement from the employing governmental entity” under certain circumstances.
In an email statement to The Eagle, city management said that workers’ compensation pays claims for injury or disease that occurs at work or is shown to be work-related. Texas Government Code 607, known as presumption law, on the other hand “presumes certain illnesses are work-related.”
Buford said that since it is difficult to know how or when someone contracted COVID-19, making first responders prove that someone contracted it at work for the sake of a workers’ compensation claim could be a problem. He said that since first responders have a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19, TGC 607 should be used to ensure that they are guaranteed compensation if they are diagnosed with COVID-19.
The “tuberculosis or other respiratory illness” section of TGC 607 says that first responders are covered for “tuberculosis, or any other disease or illness of the lungs or respiratory tract that has a statistically positive correlation with service as a firefighter, peace officer or emergency medical technician, that results in death or total or partial disability is presumed to have contracted the disease or illness during the course and scope of employment …”
City officials said there is no data to show a statistically positive correlation, and the Bryan Fire Department has not had a COVID-19 positive test result.
“The presumption law was written pre-COVID-19 and covers illnesses such as cancer or PTSD for firefighters or first responders, as these are not community spread illnesses and one can reasonably presume they developed in the course and scope of employment,” the email reads. “As of now, this law has not changed and does not recognize COVID-19 as presumptive.”
If a first responder tests positive for COVID-19 and there is no known external exposure, city officials said, Bryan’s claims administrator will investigate and file a claim on behalf of the city and employee with the Texas Workers’ Compensation Commission. The claim will be paid according to the Texas work compensation statutes. The city said employees can file a claim directly with the commission as well.
City officials said there are three first responders with claims related to COVID-19 in the workers’ comp process. None are from firefighters, they said.
Bryan Mayor Andrew Nelson told The Eagle in an email statement last week that the city is committed to supporting firefighters during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The city has followed and will continue to follow the Texas workers’ compensation law,” he said, “which requires investigating and paying all eligible on the job injuries and exposures, including those related to a positive test for COVID-19.”
College Station Office of Public Communications Director Jay Socol said that first responders in College Station who test positive for COVID-19 will be covered by workers’ comp insurance as if it were any work-related illness. The first responder doesn’t apply for coverage, he said, since the city’s third-party administrator submits the claim to the Texas Department of Insurance’s Division of Workers’ Compensation, and they adjudicate the claim.
The city’s Wednesday press release says that the fire department has “operated with full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and safety measures and has had no COVID-19 exposures to date.”
Buford said that is incorrect, since it is hard to know a person has been exposed to someone who has COVID-19, and being in a job that requires lots of interaction with the public means first responders are likely to be exposed. He said that stating that firefighters have not been exposed to the novel coronavirus is undermining the work of first responders who risk their lives each time they do their jobs.
In a Thursday letter addressed to Bryan’s city manager, Buford said that BFA will file all positive COVID-19 diagnoses as a workers’ compensation claim, but will take legal action if the city does not end up providing compensation.