After weeks of behind-the-scenes lobbying by the UFT and other public sector unions, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on May 30 signed into law a new accidental death benefit for public employees who have died since March 1 and were diagnosed with COVID-19 within 45 days of their last day at work.
The new benefit provides the state or municipal employee’s statutory beneficiaries with 50% of the deceased member’s salary as an ongoing pension benefit and health insurance coverage for the surviving spouse for the rest of the spouse’s life (or until the spouse remarries) and to children up to age 26.
“The educators and public servants who died in this pandemic deserve this recognition, and it is fitting that we do all we can to make sure their families are cared for,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “We saw an opportunity to help them and we pushed.”
As of June 4, 71 in-service UFT members have died of coronavirus-related complications. Of that group, 33 were eligible to retire when they passed away.
The legislation helped the family of Tammy Hendriks, a 50-year-old teacher at IS 238 in Queens, who died of COVID-19 on April 17 after nearly a month on a hospital ventilator. In addition to the emotional trauma, the Hendriks family has faced financial challenges. Her husband John’s auto parts business was in limbo, according to daughter Ashley.
“He hasn’t been able to work,” said Ashley, who just graduated from college in May. “All the suppliers are closed and the buyers are staying away.”
Tammy’s brother Justin graduates from college in June. They were all covered under their mother’s health insurance.
Hearing about the new law “was the biggest relief,” said Ashley.
The ordinary death benefit for the beneficiary of a UFT member employed by the Department of Education who dies while still working is a lump-sum payment of three times the member’s final salary. Health benefits for family members end at the end of the payroll period. The new accidental death benefit presumes that the coronavirus exposure occurred at work.
“COVID is acceptable for line-of-duty death as long as it says COVID on the death certificate, or a certified health professional says that COVID was a contributing factor in their death,” said UFT Treasurer Debra Penny, a teacher trustee on the Teachers’ Retirement System board.
The bill will sunset at the end of 2020, but may be extended if necessary.
Mulgrew thanked the governor, Sen. Andrew Gounardes and Assemblyman Peter Abbate for “making this happen and doing right by the families who have suffered so much.”