Pritzker signs bill guaranteeing disability pay to first responders who contracted COVID-19

Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza’s Chicago cop brother was denied duty disability benefits despite contracting COVID-19 on the job in 2020. She thanked the governor and others who helped get the bill passed.

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker and state Comptroller Susana Mendoza hold a measure he just signed that will provide disability payments to first responders who contracted COVID-19 on the job prior to the release of coronavirus vaccines.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and state Comptroller Susana Mendoza hold a measure he just signed that will provide disability payments to first responders who contracted COVID-19 on the job prior to the release of coronavirus vaccines.

Screenshot/BlueRoomStream

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday signed into law a measure to guarantee disability payments to police officers and firefighters who contracted COVID-19 in the line of duty — a change sparked by an emotional plea from Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza.

Mendoza’s brother, Sgt. Joaquin Mendoza, a Chicago cop for 22 years, was hospitalized for 72 days — losing the use of his kidneys and left arm and suffering five strokes — after contracting COVID-19 on the job in 2020. But when he sought duty disability before the Chicago police pension board in February 2022, he was denied. Instead, he was put on ordinary disability, which provided half his salary — and no health care coverage.

Mendoza brought the issue to light in February — deriding the city, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot, whom she accused of instructing appointees to the board to vote against duty disability pay for first responders sickened during the pandemic.

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.

Provided

Lightfoot has disputed Mendoza accusation, saying she didn’t learn about Mendoza’s brother until after the board had ruled, and the mayor’s office has said she “is not involved in any pension board decisions.”

On Wednesday, Mendoza wiped away tears and thanked Pritzker, legislative leaders and the Illinois General Assembly for clearing the path to help her brother and others affected by the pandemic in the line of duty. She said her brother had another surgery Tuesday and remains hospitalized.

“This was an injustice that was done, and frankly it should not have taken legislation to fix this,” Mendoza said after the signing. “The city of Chicago’s Benefit and Annuity Fund should have done the right thing from Day One. Today, thankfully, we get to correct this injustice.”

A Lightfoot spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

The measure retroactively provides Chicago police officers and firefighters disability benefits for the time they were unable to serve due to contracting COVID between March 9, 2020 and June 30, 2021 — prior to the arrival of vaccines.

Pritzker signed the measure — which passed unanimously — in his Springfield office Wednesday.

“We owe them nothing less for these first responders,” the governor said. “Serving and protecting wasn’t just their job. It’s been their calling. There are no words to describe the anguish and pain, both physical and emotional, that they’ve been through. But when our first responders aren’t given their full due, the state of Illinois won’t let them down. And I will continue to do everything in my power to serve them the same way that they served us.”

The Illinois Works Jobs Program Act has previously been revised to ensure that families of first responders who have died from COVID-19 receive benefits. The Act-of-Duty Bill worked to further that push and ensure proper benefits for those who became disabled due to the virus.

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