Florida law enforcement agencies and legislators have to make a decision on whether to classify COVID-19 fatalities — the number one killer of law enforcement officers in 2021 — as line-of-duty deaths.
According to the nonprofit organization Officer Down Memorial Page, COVID-19 accounted for the highest number of law enforcement officer deaths in both 2020 and 2021, with 358 offers dying from the disease last year.
In Florida, 75% of all law enforcement deaths tracked by the organization were caused by the virus. There were also 20 officers who died in the state last August — the highest number of law enforcement deaths per month since the pandemic.
In 2022, just one law enforcement death in the state was classified as a line-of-duty death, and it was not related to COVID-19.
Currently, individual law enforcement agencies have to make their own decisions about whether to classify COVID-19 deaths as line-of-duty and offer family members financial compensation benefits.
Florida law currently does not consider COVID-19 as a line-of-duty death, although attempts at reclassification have been made in the legislature. As it stands, Florida statutes allow local governments to have their own standards for COVID-related death compensation, such as financial assistance for funerals, workers’ compensation and other forms of assistance.
Experts say the issue is complicated.
“It’s a messy thing because the decision is made at many levels,” Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told the Tampa Bay Times. “It depends a lot on where you are. Different states and different jurisdictions will have different rules.”
For those killed in the line of duty, employers are required by state law to compensate surviving relatives.
Florida statute 112.19 requires employer-paid benefits to include $75,000 for officers killed in the line of duty, as well as $75,000 for officers killed while pursuing a suspect or responding to a traffic incident or emergency.
The statute also includes a payment of $225,000 for surviving relatives of officers “unlawfully and intentionally killed” because of an “unlawful and intentional act.”
Line-of-duty death benefits include a minimum of $1,000 for funeral expenses, though some families may receive up to $5,000 depending on the agency.
Florida statute 112.181 applies to diseases contracted on the job and states that first responders exposed to tuberculosis, hepatitis or meningococcal meningitis while on duty and who suffer a disability or die as a result of one of those illnesses “shall be presumed to have a disability suffered in the line of duty unless the contrary is shown by competent evidence.”
Regarding this statute, both the Florida House of Representatives and the Senate introduced separate bills attempting to add COVID-19 to the illnesses covered in this statute. However, both bills were ultimately rejected in committee hearings.
“We were also trying to have the Legislature cover future pandemics,” Representative Elizabeth Fetterhoff said. “We just want to make sure that these first responders who put their lives on the line every day for us are taken care of when the time comes.”
Although state law is still conflicted, individual agencies can make their own decision on how to classify COVID-19 deaths.
For instance, the Florida Highway Patrol currently considers COVID-19 deaths as line-of-duty fatalities for certain benefits. Captain Peter Bergstresser, a spokesperson for the agency, said that the agency is required to offer funeral benefits, while workers’ compensation claims can be made to the risk management division at the Florida Department of Financial Services.
Tampa Bay municipal agencies each can have their own say as well.
For example, the St. Petersburg Police Department’s Police Pension Board, along with the city’s Human Resources Department, jointly decided to offer workers’ compensation benefits for those who contracted COVID-19 on the job and to offer separate compensation for COVID-19 deaths.
St. Petersburg Human Resources Director Chris Guella said that through June 30, 2021, all Florida cities were required to count COVID-19 as a work-related incident.
St. Petersburg, in particular, extended this policy, offering compensation for both injury and death related to COVID-19. Specifically, the department offers benefits of $7,500 in funeral expenses and a bimonthly payment to the spouse that total $150,000 or until the spouse remarries.
Guella added that beneficiaries could also submit a claim to receive the officers’ pension. The Police Pension Board of Trustees is ultimately responsible for the final determination as to whether a death is considered a line-of-duty death for pension eligibility.
In the city of Tampa, those who die in the line of duty are compensated with life insurance matching their salary up to $150,000. Family members may be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits but not line-of-duty death benefits.
City spokesman Adam Smith said COVID-19 is not currently counted as a line-of-duty injury under workers’ compensation, as the city has not yet developed a policy on the classification.
Other times, agencies prefer to look at line-of-duty death benefits claims on a case-by-case basis.
Debbie Hall, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Management Services, said that while their department oversees applications for line-of-duty deaths on an individual basis, agencies can still provide local support for funeral expenses.
Other agencies, like the Pasco and Polk sheriff’s offices, are taking matters into their own hands by classifying all coronavirus deaths as line-of-duty deaths.
Representatives from the agencies cited the Safeguarding America’s First Responders Act of 2020, a federal law passed in August 2020 that established the presumption that officers contracted coronavirus on duty, thus qualifying them for death and disability benefits.