Union: Firefighters forced to prove they contracted COVID-19 on the job to get benefits

Firefighters forced to prove they contracted COVID-19 on the job to get benefits

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The majority of calls Honolulu firefighters respond to are medical ones, and many are suspected COVID-19 cases. But the head of their union said the Honolulu Fire Department is making those sickened or quarantined prove they were exposed on the job.

If they can’t, the union said, they could be denied benefits.

“Our firefighters are on their own with workers’ comp.,” Bobby Lee, Hawaii Fire Fighters Association president, told Hawaii News Now. “If they get COVID, they file a claim and they’re subject to the determination of workers’ comp whether it was job related or not.”

Determining the source of exposure can be difficult because firefighters can work coronavirus calls multiple times a week and not fall ill until days later.

“It’s next to impossible to try to prove where you got it from and firefighters don’t have the luxury of saying ‘no i don’t want to respond,‘” Lee said.

Outbreaks at fire stations around Oahu also forced many into quarantine or isolation.

Without workers’ compensation, they would have to use their own time, use their own medical insurance, and if those infected suffer long term damage, their careers could end without compensation.

Lee has not heard of any such extreme case so far, but said the members are fearful.

He also said morale is a low he has not seen in decades.

Hawaii News Now sent an email on Monday asking Honolulu’s Fire Chief Manuel Neves for a response to the union’s claims but did not hear back.

At a news conference Tuesday on Oahu’s new stay-at-home order, Neves was again asked if firefighters have to prove they caught the virus on the job to receive benefits.

Neves gave a one word answer: “No.” He then walked away from the podium.

Wednesday, Neves did provide an explaination to Hawaii News Now, saying firefighters are placed on administrative leave if they are sick or required to quarantine.

If they get a positive COVID-19 test result, they are then forced to use sick time. However, city policy allows them to apply for workers’ compensation. Neves said the city, not the fire department, determines if each firefighter qualifies.

The Honolulu Police Department and Emergency Medical Services say their sickened first responders get the benefit of the doubt that they contracted COVID-19 on the job and are covered by workers’ compensation unless it is clear the infection was not work-related.

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