AUSTIN (KXAN) — Reports presented by Austin’s public safety departments have revealed a significant difference in the percentage of worker’s compensation coverage for Austin-Travis County EMS employees with COVID-19 as opposed to Austin Police officers with COVID-19.
Of sworn ATCEMS employees who tested positive for COVID-19, only 33% were covered under worker’s compensation whereas 72% of APD employees who tested positive for COVID-19 were covered.
The comparison between the two departments came up by accident at the January virtual meeting of the Austin Public Safety Commission, as ATCEMS Chief of Staff Jasper Brown began presenting what he thought was his department’s data, but then stopped midway through when the statistics didn’t seem right. Soon, everyone realized that the chart he was presenting was APD’s data from the month prior. By the time the corrected ATCEMS chart was successfully presented, the commissioners zeroed in on the difference in worker’s compensation coverage between the two departments.
That led them to take a closer look at the differences and pass a resolution to address them.
What the data reveals
At Monday’s Austin Public Safety Commission meeting, Austin-Travis County EMS Chief of Staff Jasper Brown presented data on COVID-19 exposure, positive cases, and accommodations for ATCEMS employees. The data, Brown explained, includes the department’s records from the start of the pandemic through Dec. 30, 2020.
Throughout the pandemic, ATCEMS reports having 45 employees who have tested positive for COVID-19, including 39 sworn employees, and 6 civilian employees. Of those employees, only 13 sworn employees and zero civilian employees were covered under worker’s compensation for their COVID-19 positivity.
The ATCEMS rate of worker’s compensation coverage for COVID-19 is lower than the rate presented the previous month by the Austin Police Departmen for its officers. Rick Randall, the Health and Wellness Division Director for APD told the commission at the time that data on the chart he presented showed the totals from the start of the pandemic through Dec. 7.
APD’s numbers showed a total of 109 COVID-19 cases among the department’s employees in that time frame, with 75 cases among sworn employees and 34 cases among civilian employees. Of those employees, 54 sworn and 23 civillian had their positive COVID-19 covered under worker’s compensation.
How worker’s compensation works in Austin
Worker’s compensation claims for city employees, such as the need to take paid time off after testing positive for COVID-19, are handled through OJI or On the Job Injury evaluation process. Brown explained that a third party makes decisions on OJI based on paperwork ATCEMS and other departments submit. Brown emphasized that it is not the department that classifies someone as having an on the job injury, but rather the third party the city works with who looks at all the paperwork.
A spokesperson for Austin’s Human Resources Department said to KXAN Tuesday that all City of Austin first responders (whether from AFD, ATCEMS, or APD) who test positive for COVID-19 are “presumed to have contracted the virus while in the course and scope of employment.” City of Austin first responders must only test positive to be covered under worker’s compensation for COVID-19, the Human Resources Department added.
However, the spokesperson explained, the presumption is not the same for civilian employees.
“Civilian employees are not presumed under the Texas Workers’ Compensation statutes to have contracted the virus while in the course and scope of employment,” the spokesperson wrote.
In order for civilian employees from all three departments to qualify, the spokesperson explained. “the burden of proof that the virus was contracted during the course and scope of employment shifts to the employee. An investigation is conducted and this determination is made based upon the results of the investigation.”
The Human Resources Department went on to say it has a risk management unit that can help employees navigate workers’ compensation benefits, and that APD, ATCEMS and AFD all have designated department staff that assists employees with their workers’ compensation claims.
While an Austin Police Assistant Chief made it clear at the meeting Monday that APD presumes employees who test positive contracted COVID-19 on the job unless told otherwise, ATCEMS appears to have a different approach.
ATCEMS Chief of Staff Jasper Brown explained that when an ATCEMS employee has had exposure to COVID-19 during a call, the department reviews the call to see whether the employee had protective equipment on or whether there was any kind of “breach” in protective equipment.
“We will file any call like that [with OJI] if they encounter a patient who has COVID and even if there was no potential break in the PPE, we would look at if that’s covered under worker’s comp,” Brown said, adding that if an employee goes into quarantine because their family member has tested positive, the department wouldn’t file a case like that to OJI because “that wouldn’t fall under workmen’s comp.”
Brown said employees whose family members have tested positive can still ask to have their case reviewed by the OJI team.
“When somebody has brought forward and said their family member or somebody else has had COVID, they’ve already gone three, five, [or] seven days in quarantine and then they contract it while they are in quarantine, the likelihood of them catching it at work then it’s decreasing, and it’s more likely they got it from a family member or something else,” Brown said.
Austin Police Assistant Chief Troy Gay was also present at the virtual public safety commission meeting and was asked by commissioners about this difference between the departments. While Gay said that APD is following the same processes Chief Brown mentioned, he noted one difference: “we do assume it was a work-related injury unless told otherwise.”
“We do still push it and push it forward as a worker’s comp claim if someone does have an exposure,” Gay continued. “If someone tells us that the exposure did not hapepen at work, then of course that would not be a worker’s comp claim, but we do make the assumption that it does happen at work unless told otherwise.”
Brown told commissioners ATCEMS will “certainly welcome anyone to look into how we’re processing” worker’s compensation, whether that is the city’s corporate Human Resources or another party.
Gay agreed, saying “we should get back with HR and maybe have a conversation with all the public safety agencies to make sure we are capturing and having the same processes.”
The commissioners subsequently passed a resolution, recommending that Austin City Council direct the City Manager to ensue all three public safety departments (police, fire and EMS) adopt a presumption that an employee who tests positive for COVID-19 was injured at work. Commissioners also called on the city to give all three departments (and especially ATCEMS) additional HR resources to help employees navigate worker’s compensation.
Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Association who represents ATCEMS medics, said she knows medics who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 but because the department can’t find a patient the medic interacted with who also tested positive, the medic is not encouraged to fill out an OJI complaint.
“We oftentimes treat patients and leave them if they don’t need to go to the hospital,” Xie said, noting that medics may never know if people they treated during the course of their work tested positive.
“I want an answer as to why the percentages are so different,” Xie said of the disparate rates of APD employees and ATCEMS employees receiving worker’s comp. for COVID-19.
KXAN has reached out to all three public safety departments to learn more about their worker’s compensation policies as it relates to COVID-19.