When Florida law enforcement officers die of COVID-19, should those be considered in-the-line-of-duty deaths?
Democratic Sen. Lauren Book‘s SB 1232, approved by a committee Wednesday, would make that determination — at least regarding surviving families’ health care benefits.
Book’s bill would assure that surviving families of officers such as Broward County Sheriff’s Lt. Aldemar “Al” Rengifo, who died from COVID-19, would continue to receive health care benefits. Normally, the agency would extend those benefits, continuing to pay premiums, if an officer had died in some other way that clearly was related to the line of duty.
“This officer was on the front line, keeping his community safe during a global pandemic. He was responding to an emergency by reporting to work,” Book said.
Rengifo tested positive for the virus on July 27. He died of it Aug. 16, at age 47.
“Since his passing, the Broward Sheriff’s Office has denied benefits to his widow and a child because of a strict interpretation of the existing statute,” Book said. “Deputy Lt. Rengifo’s family is struggling, not only with the devastating loss of a husband and a father, but also the financial hardship that his passing has brought.”
To date, there have been 14 known deaths of law enforcement officers from COVID-19, Book told the Senate Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability Wednesday. That committee approved her bill 6-0.
Her bill would require agencies to pay the entire premium of the employer’s health insurance plan for surviving dependents if a law enforcement officer, correctional officer, or a correctional probation officer was exposed in the line of duty to, and died from, a pandemic disease or to an infectious disease which was the subject of a declared public health emergency.
The bill was amended Wednesday to set the start date for the current public health emergency as March 1, 2020, and to apply the eligibility only to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Book said the end-date for the emergency would be whenever the current emergency in Florida is officially declared to be over.
Some committee members raised concerns Wednesday about the prospect of significantly increasing costs associated with such deaths.
Book said the estimated current annual premium costs for the families of the 14 law enforcement officers who’ve died so far is estimated at $288,000.
Democratic Sen. Linda Stewart of Orlando pointed out that with the COVID-19 vaccination program and with all law enforcement officers now eligible to receive shots, it is likely there would not be significant numbers of additional deaths of officers from COVID-19.
Democratic Sen. Victor Torres of Orlando, a retired police detective from New York, called the measure “an excellent, excellent bill.”
“You said there were 14 cases. We’re lucky it’s not more than 14, I can tell you right now, with this pandemic, and the work that law enforcement does in the state of Florida, in all capacities, we have to recognize who pays in the end. The families. The children. The wives. The parents. Their loved ones are gone. You put your life on the line, whether it’s taken by somebody shooting at you, or in this case pandemic,” Torres said.