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New Jersey workers' comp bill for responders faces uphill battle

First responders don't think about insurance coverage when they are called to take emergency action. Public safety takes priority over personal need. It's only after a volunteer or professional is injured or dies that some responders learn New Jersey workers' compensation doesn't cover them.

A proposal to change state law would guarantee workers' compensation coverage for volunteers or paid workers during catastrophic emergencies. Calamities would include terrorist attacks and epidemics. Assembly Bill 1347 states workers' comp benefits should be available automatically for public safety workers who are injured, disabled or killed on the job.

The measure defines public safety workers as volunteer or paid individuals working for police or fire departments. Benefits would extend to members of state-approved Community Emergency Response Teams, health care and correctional workers pressed into service during a catastrophic event. Although many individuals in these categories already have employer coverage, the bill would "presume" or guarantee workers' compensation benefits.

The bill's critics include the state League of Municipalities. League officials complain the broad-based Twenty First Century First Responders Act doesn't account for the costs to taxpayers. The same excuse was used by the governor of New Jersey last year to veto a similar measure.

Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex, agreed fiscal considerations are necessary. The bill's lead sponsor pointed to workers' compensation legislation in other states that includes provisions for public safety workers. She noted comparable laws in those states did not impact budgets adversely.

The measure has the backing of the state's Professional Firefighters Association. A PFA representative recalled the valiant efforts of 9-11 responders. He cited medical conditions the workers and their families suffered in the national disaster's wake.

Some Bergen County workers do not receive workers' compensation benefits because a claim is denied or an employer is not required to carry the insurance. An attorney will review a claim for eligibility and facilitate the process to secure benefits.

Source: Newsworks, "N.J. looks at extending eligibility for workers' comp to all first responders" Phil Gregory, Mar. 17, 2014

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