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Lawmakers advance bills to compensate first responders hit by COVID-19

Virginia lawmakers have passed bills that allow certain first responders to file workers’ compensation benefits for being disabled from COVID-19, but still need to reach agreement on some differences.

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By Sam Fowler

Virginia lawmakers have passed bills that allow certain first responders to file workers’ compensation benefits for being disabled from COVID-19, but still need to reach agreement on some differences.

The measures would make COVID-19 an occupational disease for firefighters, emergency medical services personnel and law enforcement or correctional officers and allow these individuals to file for workers’ compensation benefits.

 The workers’ dependents also would be eligible for benefits if the workers die from COVID-19. Occupational diseases arise out of and in the course of employment, according to state law, and include hepatitis, meningococcal meningitis, tuberculosis or HIV.

Senate Bill 1375, sponsored by Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, and House Bill 2207, introduced by Del. Jay Jones, D- Norfolk, had mostly unanimous support..

The main difference is that the House bill would extend the compensation to regional jail officers. The Senate also rejected an amendment by the House that would allow compensation for cases going back to March 2020. The bills would apply to persons diagnosed with COVID-19 on or after July 1, and whose death or disability from COVID-19 occurred on or after that same date, Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church said in an email. She is the Senate bill’s House patron.

The workers and their dependents must meet certain requirements to be eligible for workers compensation. The bill provides that the COVID-19 virus is established by a positive diagnostic test, along with an incubation period consistent with COVID-19 and symptoms of COVID-19 that require medical treatment.

The bill would add COVID-19 to the work-related diseases that would prevent certain first responders or corrections officers from working and would cause them to lose their income, Kory said.

“In this time of pandemic emergency, our first responders are likely to be exposed to the coronavirus on the job, and should be protected if exposed to this dangerous virus,” Kory said in a statement. “I believe that adding this unemployment eligibility condition to the other work-related disabling conditions in our Code is the fair and just thing to do.”

It would cost an estimated $2.5 million to $3.3 million to implement the Senate legislation, according to a Senate Finance and Appropriations committee held in early February. The House bill would cost significantly more if it allowed compensation for cases going back to March 2020.

There was some opposition to Jones’ bill during a January House subcommittee meeting. Jeremy Bennett, director of intergovernmental affairs at the Virginia Association of Counties, which seeks to represent the interests of counties in the state, urged legislators to vote against the House bill. He said local governments and risk insurance providers haven’t budgeted for additional payments that the new law would require. The bill should only be approved if the state provides local governments with additional funding.

Lawmakers agreed Friday to a conference committee to resolve legislative differences.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Downtown

City Council unanimously approves sale of the Public Safety Building

The city is selling the three-acre property to Capital City Partners, LLC for $3,520,456 who will then redevelop the site into a $325 million mixed-use project anchored by VCU Health System, The Doorways, and Ronald McDonald House Charities.

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Richmond City Council approved three Ordinances introduced by the Stoney Administration for the sale and redevelopment of the site of the of the existing Public Safety Building. The city is selling the three-acre property to Capital City Partners, LLC for $3,520,456 who will then redevelop the site into a $325 million mixed-use project anchored by VCU Health System, The Doorways, and Ronald McDonald House Charities.

The negotiated sales price takes into account the developer’s responsibility to demolish the existing building and build public infrastructure that includes reconstructing Clay Street between 9th and 10th Streets.

“The sale and redevelopment of the Public Safety Building site is a critical first step to improving downtown,” said Mayor Levar Stoney.  “My Administration was glad to work with City Council and Capital City Partners, LLC to create this great win for Richmond.

The project will aid minority businesses, create child care slots for Richmond families, fund scholarships for graduates of Richmond Public Schools, and generate nearly $56 million in new revenue for the city’s General Fund over the first 25 years. We can, and we will, continue to grow Richmond by redeveloping underutilized city-owned property.”

“For many years the city has needed to find a better use for the Public Safety Building site.  I am glad that City Council has approved this important project that moves the city forward in redeveloping our Downtown, benefits our community, and strengthens healthcare in the city and region,” said Councilmember Ellen Robertson.

“We want to thank Mayor Stoney and Richmond City Council for supporting the sale of this property and allowing this important development to go forward.  Too often real estate transactions are thought of only in terms of investment and economics, but not in the lives they improve.  This project will help improve the lives of thousands of families in crises and will further Richmond’s reputation as an important healthcare capital,” said Capital City Partners’ Susan Eastridge and Michael Hallmark.

“VCU and VCU Health are strongly committed to the redevelopment of this area.  The Public Safety Building Project, along with the current construction of our new children’s inpatient hospital and Adult Outpatient Pavilion, will play a critical role in supporting a thriving urban center,” said Michael Rao, president of VCU and VCU Health System.

“We are pleased that the City has chosen to move forward with the sale of the Public Safety Building to Capital City Partners, LLC.  This announcement marks the beginning of a long-awaited initiative to breathe fresh life into this section of the city, while providing a much needed new home for The Doorways to lodge the thousands of families who depend on our services to access their medical care.  This announcement is truly a win-win for the Doorways and the entire Richmond community,” said Stacy Brinkley, President and CEO of The Doorways.

“As specialty pediatric care grows in the Richmond region, so does the need to support the whole family.  A new, fully-accessible Ronald McDonald House provides more capacity to help families whose sick and injured children are receiving care at all pediatric hospitals throughout the Richmond region as well as families whose children are the most vulnerable and medically complex being cared for at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU.  This project is a game changer for pediatric healthcare,” said Kerry Blumberg, executive director of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Richmond.

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Jefferson Davis Highway in the process of being renamed following House vote

The bill, introduced by Del. Joshua Cole, D-Fredericksburg, passed the House earlier this month with a 70-28 vote. The Senate passed the measure earlier this week with a 30-9 vote.

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By Cameron Jones

The Virginia General Assembly has approved a bill renaming sections of U.S. Route 1 almost 100 years after it was named in honor of the first and only president of the Confederacy.

The bill, introduced by Del. Joshua Cole, D-Fredericksburg, passed the House earlier this month with a 70-28 vote. The Senate passed the measure earlier this week with a 30-9 vote.

Counties and cities have until Jan. 1, 2022 to change their portion of Jefferson Davis Highway to whatever name they choose, or the state will change it to Emancipation Memorial Highway.

“Change the name on your own, or the General Assembly will change it for you,” Cole said to House committee members.

Sections of the highway that run through Stafford, Caroline, Spotsylvania and Chesterfield counties will need new signage and markers, according to the bill’s impact statement. Commemorative naming signs will be replaced, along with overhead guide signs at interchanges and street-name signs. The changes are estimated to cost almost $600,000 for all localities. The changes in Chesterfield will cost an estimated $373,000 because there are 17 Jefferson Davis Highway overhead signs on Routes 288 and 150.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy conceived the plan for Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway in 1913, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Davis was a Mississippi senator who became the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The Virginia General Assembly designated U.S. Route 1 as Jefferson Davis Highway in 1922.

“Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederacy, a constant reminder of a white nationalist experiment, and a racist Democrat,” Cole said. “Instead we can acknowledge the powerful act of the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Cole said the change acknowledges the positive history of the Civil War and reminds people of the emancipation and freedom that came from it.

The bill received little pushback in House and Senate committees. A Richmond City representative said their initial concern was the interpretation if districts would have the opportunity to choose a replacement name. Signs are already going up renaming the route to Richmond Highway in Richmond.

Sen. Scott A. Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, voiced his support for the bill. He responded to concern that the change dishonors a veteran. He said he believes the bill “strikes a reasonable balance” by giving counties time to rename their portion of the highway, or they will give it a default name which “doesn’t carry the political baggage.”

A poll by Hampton University and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found Virginians are still divided on changing the names of schools, streets and military bases named after Confederate leaders (44% supported the idea and 43% opposed it).

Eric Sundberg, Cole’s chief of staff, said there were two camps of people that opposed the bill. He said some were openly racist and called Cole’s office to make offensive remarks. Then there were people who said they did not want to “double dip” on renaming the portion in their respective district and wanted it all to be named Richmond Highway.

Stephen Farnsworth, professor and director at the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, said efforts to rename the highway have never received much support in Richmond until this year.

“Virginia has rapidly moved from a commonwealth that treasured its Confederate legacy, to one that is trying to move beyond it,” Farnsworth said.

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Delegate celebrates Senate passage of limited paid leave bill

The Virginia Senate passed an amended version of a bill by Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Woodbridge, mandating paid sick leave. The substitute bill, which now only extends to some in-home health care workers, heads back to the House where the initial bill passed on a 54-46 vote. Guzmán said she will encourage delegates to approve the substitute and send the amended bill to Gov. Ralph Northam.

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By Zachary Klosko

After four years and multiple bills, Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Woodbridge, is on the cusp of being able to secure paid leave for some Virginia workers.

“It feels really good,” Guzmán said. “I think about the amount of people who are going to get this benefit and how they will have peace of mind to stay home and take care of family members if they are unwell.”

The Virginia Senate passed an amended version of the delegate’s legislation that mandates paid sick leave for some in-home health care workers. The substitute bill heads back to the House, where the initial bill passed on a 54-46 vote. Guzmán said she will encourage delegates to approve the substitute and send the amended bill to Gov. Ralph Northam.

Guzmán took to Twitter after the Senate’s 21-18 vote to express her excitement.

“Thank you!!” Guzmán wrote on Twitter. “We did it!!”

House Bill 2137 originally offered the benefit to many essential workers, including first responders, retail workers, cleaning workers, teachers, jail and prison employees and transportation workers.

 The bill advanced from the House with an amendment for small businesses; it did not apply to retail businesses with fewer than 25 employees. The Senate later amended the bill to only offer the benefit to in-home health care workers who serve patients with Medicaid coverage.

The substitute still requires employers to set aside one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked. Employees must work at least an average of 20 hours per week or 90 hours per month to qualify. Once covered, workers will be allowed paid leave if they are sick or if they need to care for a sick family member. Unused sick leave can be carried over to the year after it was earned.

The amended bill will protect 25,000 workers, according to a press release by Guzmán.

Guzmán says her work is not done.

“I will continue to fight as lieutenant governor, I will continue to fight as a delegate,” Guzmán said. “Whichever role I’m in, I will continue to fight.”

Guzmán is running for lieutenant governor. Among others in the race, she is facing Del. Hala Ayala, another Democrat from Prince William County. If successful, Ayala or Guzmán would become the first Latina to serve in the role.

If signed into law, those covered will begin to accrue paid leave hours on July 1.

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