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A3945 was signed into law on July 1, 2020 by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy. The law provides for both an accidental disability pension for an eligible member who becomes totally disabled from COVID-19 as well as a death benefit for eligible beneficiaries if the covered member should die from COVID-19.
This new pension law applies to certain members of three pension systems: PERS (Public Employees’ Retirement System), PFRS (Police and Firefighters’ Retirement System), and SPRS (State Police Retirement System). Those covered by the new pension law are solely law enforcement officers, state troopers, firefighters and emergency medical responders who are enrolled in one of the three pensions systems.
COVID-19 claims are normally considered occupational exposure claims for workers’ compensation purposes, but for pension purposes A3945 transmutes such claims into traumatic events for those pension applicants covered under this law. This is crucial because an accidental disability pension is only available for traumatic work-related events. Under current law members of PFRS and SPRS who are eligible for accidental disability retirement benefits receive a pension of 66% of their final compensation. In addition, an amount that is equal to three and a half times their final compensation is paid to the member’s beneficiary on death. In the case of accidental death, eligible spouses or partners of PFRS and SPRS members receive an annual pension equal to 70% of the member’s final compensation and an amount that is equal to three and a half times the compensation paid in the last year of service. Eligible widows or widowers of PERS members are paid an annual pension of 50% of the compensation paid in the last year of service.
Below are the only conditions that must be met for the COVID-19 accidental disability pension and death benefits:
Accidental Disability Pension:
1. The law enforcement officer, firefighter, or emergency medical responder must sustain a total and permanent disability from an on-the-job COVID-19 illness. Such an illness will be considered “traumatic” for purposes of his or her pension application.
2. The applicant must begin showing symptoms within 14 days of interacting with the public or supervising other personnel who interacted with the public as part of their job.
3. There must be proof of a positive COVID-19 test.
4. The exposure must occur beginning March 9, 2020 and prior to the termination date of either the public health emergency or state of emergency, whichever occurs later.
1. The eligible widow or widower must prove that the deceased law enforcement officer, firefighter, or emergency medical responder contracted COVID-19 during the period of the public health emergency beginning March 9, 2020.
2. The decedent must have died as a result of the disease.
3. The decedent must have begun to show symptoms within 14 days of interacting with the public or supervising other personnel who interacted with the public as part of their job.
An unusual provision of this COVID-19 pension law is that the covered pension applicant does not have to offer any proof at all that “more likely than not” he or she contracted the disease in the line of duty. That is the requirement for all other accidental disability pension applications. This law is much stronger than so-called rebuttable presumption laws being passed around the United States. This is an absolute presumption law. Evidence presented by the public entity that the member developed the disease at home or outside work is not relevant. There are only two relevant issues: first, did the pension applicant develop COVID-19 symptoms within 14 days of interacting with the public or supervising other personnel who interacted with the public as part of their job? If the answer is yes, that satisfies the on-the-job criterion. Second, does the Division of Pensions and Benefits agree with the applicant’s medical report stating that the member is totally disabled from COVID-19?
The law provides that new onset diseases or chronic psychological disease that may appear later in possible connection to prior COVID-19 exposure and subsequent recovery will not be considered a permanent and total disability caused by the virus. However, the law does apply to complications from COVID-19 or aggravation or acceleration of a preexisting condition. The distinction is between “new onset diseases” (meaning a disease that the individual never had been diagnosed with before) as opposed to medical conditions that were already diagnosed prior to the COVID-19 exposure but were aggravated by the virus.
The new law applies to any law enforcement officer, firefighter, and emergency medical responder who was performing regular or assigned duties but not yet enrolled in either PFRS, PERS or SPRS who would otherwise be eligible for benefits from this Bill.
The law will not apply to any member who has already retired and subsequently returned to employment pursuant to the Executive Order without reemployment to assist during the public health emergency.
John H. Geaney, Esq., is an Executive Committee Member and a Shareholder in Capehart Scatchard's Workers’ Compensation Group. Mr. Geaney concentrates his practice in the representation of employers, self-insured companies, third-party administrators, and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act. Should you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Mr. Geaney at 856.914.2063 or by e‑mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.