Full pension benefits for cops, firefighters who survive COVID-19 clears Illinois House panel

Illinois Comptroller Susan Mendoza choked up telling the panel how her brother, a Chicago cop, was left disabled by COVID-19 but denied full disability benefits.

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Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza and her brother Sgt. Joaquin Mendoza, whose COVID-19 disability sparked new legislation.

Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza and her brother Sgt. Joaquin Mendoza, whose COVID-19 disability sparked new legislation that passed a House committee Thursday.

Provided

After hearing emotional testimony from Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, an Illinois House committee unanimously approved legislation Thursday that would grant Chicago cops and firefighters full benefits if they become disabled from COVID-19.

Mendoza is pushing for the measure because her brother, a Chicago police detective who lost his kidneys due to a COVID-19 infection in late 2020, was denied “duty disability” benefits that would have provided him with 75% of his salary and free health care.

Instead, he was granted only “ordinary benefits,” which paid him 50% of his salary and provided no health insurance.

The city of Chicago police pension board decided that Sgt. Joaquin Mendoza didn’t prove he’d gotten the disease through a particular “act of duty,” though the board’s own doctor said he likely was infected on the job.

Susana Mendoza choked up while testifying before the Illinois House personnel and pensions committee about her brother, urging passage of a law that would retroactively apply to any police officer or firefighter in Illinois who was left disabled by COVID-19 between March 9, 2020, and June 30, 2021.

Mendoza told the committee that when she called her brother to wish him a happy 56th birthday on Nov. 11, 2020, he had a cough, and that two days later, he was hospitalized. He spent 72 days in a hospital, suffered five strokes and was left permanently disabled.

“My brother’s situation is tragic,” she said. “I could not even talk about it before without breaking into tears. But I hope that, through that tragedy, we can fix this for everyone else.”

In February 2022, the Chicago police pension board voted 4-3 to deny the sergeant a duty disability pension.

According to his attorneys, the board later also rejected a duty disability pension for another officer whose lungs were damaged by COVID-19 — and at least 18 other officers have similar requests pending.

In a Chicago Sun-Times interview last month, Susana Mendoza blamed Mayor Lori Lightfoot, saying the mayor — who has four appointees on the police pension board — failed her brother and other officers disabled by COVID-19. Three Lightfoot appointees voted against Mendoza’s brother’s request for duty disability.

“It was the mayor and her hand-picked board that made this decision knowingly,” Mendoza said then. “Anyone who knows anything about how those pension funds run knows that the mayoral appointees work only at the behest of the mayor and take their marching orders from the mayor.”

Lightfoot responded by saying she didn’t have anything to do with those votes.

Joaquin Mendoza’s former boss, Eric Winstrom, a former Area 5 detectives commander who is now police chief in Grand Rapids, Mich., had testified before the pension board that the sergeant contracted the virus on the job and deserved a duty disability.

And Eugene Roy, a former chief of detectives who was a member of the police pension board during Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration, told the Sun-Times he heard from sources that “the order came down from City Hall that no one is to get a duty disability for COVID.”

Regarding the duty disability legislation now in Springfield, City Hall is taking a “neutral” position.

The House committee voted 9-0 in favor of the measure, which goes now to the full House.

Under previous legislation, cops and firefighters who die because of COVID-19 are presumed to have contracted the illness as a result of an act of duty, entitling them to full benefits. But that law didn’t extend to first responders who survive the disease.

“Honestly, you should not be punished for living,” Susana Mendoza told the House committee.

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