The families of Georgia’s public safety officers who died after contracting COVID-19 are eligible to receive money from the state’s indemnification fund, but a lack of clarity in the law has made it difficult for loved ones to access those benefits.
House Bill 1145, sponsored by state Rep. Joseph Gullett, aims to ease the state’s application process and allow for more families to benefit from the fund. Gullett, an Acworth Republican, said he was unsure how many public safety officers have died from COVID-19. Public safety officers include people such as law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians.
“Right now, there is no directive outlined for how and when a deceased (public safety officer) qualifies for the benefit,” Gullett told the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday.
The committee approved the bill unanimously.
Gullett’s proposal is in response to a federal law passed last year to expand “line-of-duty deaths” that occur between Jan. 1, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2023, to include COVID-19.
Georgia’s indemnification fund provides financial support to the families of public safety officers who have died or been injured in the line of duty. Family members of public safety officers who die in the line of duty are eligible to receive $150,000 from the state.
HB 1145 would allow the state Department of Administrative Services to grant money from the indemnification fund to the families of public safety officers who die within 45 days of being diagnosed with the novel coronavirus.
Georgia Fallen Firefighters Foundation Chairman Dennis Thayer, who is working with Gullett on the legislation, said since it is often difficult to determine where and how someone picks up COVID-19, family members would not need to prove that the officer caught the virus while working.
The deaths would have to have occurred between March 1, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2021, to qualify. Gullett said Georgia’s timeframe begins with the first cases of COVID-19 in the state. The end date will likely be amended to coincide with the end of the governor’s declared state of emergency. Gov. Brian Kemp last week extended the emergency order through March 24.
State Rep. Jesse Petrea, a Savannah Republican, said if the bill becomes law, he envisions future Legislatures will have to make amendments.
“We’ll set precedent here,” Petrea said. “And we may be dealing with COVID for 10 more years. Today we’re talking about just now. But we still have COVID, and I suspect its going to be around a long time.”