Sorrow has stalked us in New Bedford these last 18 months as a black death roamed our nursing homes and storefront churches, our ambulances and supermarket aisles, our fish houses and our pubs. It stood in the corner at our Thanksgiving celebrations and got on the bus with us at the downtown terminal.

We lost a police officer and a city carpenter, a former mayor and several talented musicians, more than a few beloved elderly mothers.

Countless dedicated people — nurses and drug store clerks, EMTs and cab drivers, waiters and waitresses and police officers — have been out there risking their lives to do their jobs from the beginning. First responders and essential workers we called them, and we will forever be in their debt. We cannot, however, make that debt whole for those who have tragically died during the pandemic simply by giving their survivors money. 

It is certainly an act of selflessness and courage to put yourself forward the way first responders and essential workers do, though in reality for many essential workers it is also just a matter of needing to keep a job. Whatever it is, it is nothing that can ever be fully repaid.

So along comes a proposal from Ward 3 City Councilor Hugh Dunn, well known for his prioritizing the goals of the police and firefighters’ unions, with a plan to change the very charter of the City of New Bedford to make all COVID-19 deaths of city employees automatically “line of duty” deaths

State Rep. Chris Hendricks, D-New Bedford, has made a similar pitch at the state level, proposing an idea that would greatly expand the Massachusetts pension system.

Dunn’s original proposal would make any death of any police officer or firefighter from COVID exactly equal to the heroism of an officer who is shot to death on the street or a firefighter who loses his life in a burning building.

The councilor, who has been in the news recently for his own alleged law enforcement transgressions, initially proposed giving the survivors of police officers and firefighters a pension equal to 100% of their salaries and other city workers 72%. Right now the survivors are eligible for whatever they would have been eligible at the time of their loved one’s death. Pensions for city employees are determined by a formula that calculates their age, years of service, and average pay of the highest three years of their consecutive service. 

After Mayor Jon Mitchell and others pointed out that EMTs, teachers, etc. can also be exposed to COVID at work, Dunn expanded his proposal to give the survivors of all city employees who die of COVID for any reason, pensions that are equal to the full 100% of their salaries.

If you take the proposals of Dunn and Hendricks at face value, they are generous and humane gestures. It is challenging, however, to take Dunn’s completely at face value given that he will soon undergo a probable cause hearing for serious charges against him over a motor vehicle accident. The compromised investigation of that incident resulted in the disciplining of three city police officers.

Councilor Dunn’s original proposal would make any death of any police officer or firefighter from COVID exactly equal to the heroism of an officer who is shot to death on the street or a firefighter who loses his life in a burning building.

The bigger problem, however, is that the proposed COVID-19 death benefit would be enormously expensive for both New Bedford and the state. In the city’s case, it could put it in further fiscal danger, at a time when it is already struggling.

The Massachusetts Municipal Association this summer released a statement of opposition to a series of state and local bills like the proposals made by Dunn and Hendricks that would provide similar death benefits to government workers who have labored on site during the pandemic. The MMA, the state’s preeminent good management group for cities and towns, called the laws “very costly” and said some would lead to “unprecedented” pension benefits. It described them as “presumption bills” — they presume to know how someone contracted COVID when it is unlikely that anyone really knows.

“It is clear that the measures would add billions of dollars to state and local unfunded pension liabilities, saddling current and future-generation taxpayers with an unaffordable financial burden,” wrote the MMA in July 27 testimony to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Service.

Consider this: If a New Bedford city worker made $50,000 a year and died at 50, the surviving spouse would be entitled to an extra $12,500 a year for life, say for another 30 years. If the normal full pension of such a worker was 70%, Dunn’s proposal could add another 30% for about three decades.

What if another COVID surge happens this winter and three additional city workers pass away, in addition to the two who have died already? The cost to the city for five workers earning $50,000 dying from COVID at about 50 years old, earning an additional 30% in their pensions would be almost $1.9 million in today’s dollars. Even more when you add in yearly cost-of-living increases that are part of the pensions.

A month after Dunn’s proposal, the City Council passed a second home-rule petition, proposed by Councilor Ian Abreu and amended by Councilor Linda Morad, that asks the mayor to accept a state law (Chapter 32, sections 100 and 9) that Morad contended already grants the death benefit.

Section 100 grants a 100% line-of-duty benefit to public safety workers except emergency workers and Section 9 grants a 72% pension to other government workers. Neither statute mentions COVID-related deaths. 

Mayor Jon Mitchell was articulate in sending back unsigned the City Council’s unanimous passage of the home-rule petition asking state lawmakers to allow the city to change the charter.

He pointed out that current state law allows an accidental death benefit (a 72% benefit) in cases where a worker dies in the line of duty. But in the case of a death from an infectious disease, proving it was contracted in the line of duty requires evidence of how the worker was likely to have come down with the virus. The mayor also wrote that studies have shown that people are far more likely to contract COVID from household spread and social gatherings than they are at work. That includes New Bedford.

“In fact, through contact tracing, we are aware that some city employees were exposed while on vacation, or they caught the virus from a significant other returning from vacation,” Mitchell wrote the council.

There are even bigger problems, however, with Dunn’s proposal, according to the mayor’s letter.

It would also award the generous death benefit to workers who have refused to be vaccinated, even though the overwhelming consensus of the medical community is that vaccinations indisputably save lives.

“As I am certain the council would agree,” Mitchell wrote, “it would be inappropriate to extend accidental death benefits when the employee refused to take a vaccine that had been found to be nearly 100% effective in preventing death, unless the employee had a valid medical or religious reason not to take it,” he wrote.

There are two city employees who have died of COVID-19 so far. Pierre Tremblay, a longtime city carpenter who died in March 2020, and Sgt. Michael Cassidy of the police department, who passed in April. Dunn cited Cassidy as the motivation for his original proposal.

Debbie Cassidy, the sergeant’s widow, could not immediately be reached for comment by The New Bedford Light as to whether her late husband had been vaccinated. She also could not be reached by The Standard-Times. She has spoken in favor of Rep. Hendricks’ pension-boosting bill. 

Lt. Scott Carola, the police department’s spokesman, told the The Standard-Times that the department arranged vaccinations for roughly half the force when the vaccines became available to local first responders in mid-January. That would have left an astonishing half unvaccinated after they had the opportunity.

Some officers, of course, may have made their own vaccination arrangements, but it seems certain that a significant portion of the police department has not been vaccinated. The same for other city workers. Mayor Mitchell has recently enacted a mandatory testing program for those refusing to get vaccinated. At least one union is opposing it.

Dunn says he’ll accept the vaccination requirement now that a full FDA vaccine approval has been given, but he wants those who died before it to be grandfathered, even if they declined the vaccine when the city was in an emergency.

Sgt. Cassidy was no doubt a good man. He was three times honored by the department, twice for helping deliver babies and once for giving CPR to a Market Basket cashier who had slumped over. Known for his humility, he sounds like he would be the first to say his actions were not done in order to receive a pension boost.

The bigger issue, as first responder unions across the country advocate for these kinds of line-of-duty COVID benefits, is what kind of police and fire departments and city governments are we creating? When the benefits of municipal workers are so much better than private sector workers who have also risked their lives during the pandemic, what kind of a two-tiered society are we building? 

In responding to the council’s action, Mitchell referenced the death of his own great grandfather, who he said died during the 1918 flu epidemic while working as a New Bedford patrolman removing the bodies of those who had perished from the virus. He never received any benefits, and his children ended up in an orphanage. While Mitchell said he supports a 100% pension benefit for those who have died from COVID caught in line of the duty, he does not support one for any city worker who has died of COVID for any reason, vaccinated or unvaccinated.

“This would hardly be an appropriate use of tax dollars, but it would also tend to undermine the reverence accorded employees who have actually died in the service of the city,” Mitchell wrote.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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