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State, local lawmakers seek to financially help essential workers

Published: Apr. 28, 2020 at 7:02 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The threat of novel coronavirus moved work from the office to the home for some Americans, including here at WIS.

However, for many essential employees, working from the comfort of home is not an option. Financially supporting frontline workers at risk of contracting COVID-19 remains on the minds of lawmakers.

"Working and putting themselves in harm's way, their families in harm's way, to do the jobs that need to be done," said State Representative Seth Rose (D-Richland County).

“It's a topic that's been mentioned by a number of representatives,” added House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford (D-Richland County). “How exactly this government can do that would be difficult because we're not meeting right now."

Both Representatives Rose and Rutherford said it starts with retooling the state's workers' compensation.

"We got to be looking at those persons if they end up with it, we got to make sure they're ok," Rutherford added.

State law puts the burden of proof on an employee to prove they contracted COVID-19 or another infectious disease on the job to receive benefits.

Section 42-11-10 of the SC Code of Laws: Testing and treatment of an employee exposed to a contagious disease is a question of law that requires a fact-specific legal analysis and ultimately can only be decided by a Commissioner at a Hearing. Nothing prevents an employee from filing a workers’ compensation claim if they believe they contracted a disease that is work-related. If the claim is denied by the employer, the employee has the right to request a hearing before a Commissioner. At the hearing, the Commissioner will hear the facts presented and render a decision after applying the facts of the case to the law. (From Workers’ Compensation Commission)

“How evil is it that we’d have to make them prove that’s where they got it?” Rutherford asked.

The two lawmakers feel it should be presumed if a worker performs essential work, ranging from public works to first responders to even privatized jobs like at a grocery store.

"People that we know working jobs that require them to come in contact with people, they should be covered," Rutherford said. "We got to also stand behind those people when they get sick."

When it comes to front line state and local government employees, Rose believes it's time for the state to step up and provide extra money in first responders' paychecks with hazard pay.

"The state gives millions and millions of dollars every year to counties, through the local government fund," Rose said. "We could fund the local government fund to cover things like hazard pay for first responders."

"The General Assembly has historically underfunded the Local Government Fund," Rutherford mentioned. "If I were in local government, I would not count on that money coming from the state anytime soon."

"Right now, nothing for that first responder and their family for the risk that they are taking for all of us," Rose said.

Charleston County took the initiative. Eligible Charleston County essential employees receive hazard pay. The City of Columbia has not been able to at this time.

"Our fiscal commitment right now is to keep all of our civil servants employed and to do our best to avoid furloughs and layoffs during what will likely be an unprecedented and precipitous revenue shortfall for state and local governments all across the country," Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said in a statement sent to WIS.

Mayor Benjamin added they've maintained 100% of their workforce and added 40 hours of Personal Time Off for frontline workers. Plus, to assist government workers, they instituted strict protective measures and enhanced testing for employees and their families.

WIS reached out to both Richland and Lexington County Councils to comment on hazard pay. They could not be reached prior to the publication of this article.

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