Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, over 100 first responders have lost their lives.
Unlike the rest of us, these brave men and women couldn’t, by the very nature of their work, stay home or social distance.
In firehouses across the country, firefighters had to continue sharing confined spaces and respond to emergencies in cramped trucks.
Police officers continued to respond to 9-1-1 calls and interact with the public in very close quarters.
And, while most of us are avoiding COVID at all costs, state and county EMT crews are transporting the infected and others to hospitals for emergency care.
While I’m inspired by the bravery of these first responders, I’m not at all surprised by their actions.
First responders always answer the calls to action, selflessly placing others before themselves.
In recognition of the many sacrifices they make, Congress established the Public Safety Officers Benefit program in 1976.
This program provides first responders with a one-time payment if they die or are totally disabled on duty.
Let me be clear, nothing can ever put back together a family who has lost a loved one, but the PSOB program provides some economic relief to grieving families and peace of mind to the first responders themselves in knowing that their families won’t be left destitute if tragedy were to befall them.
Unfortunately, the PSOB program wasn’t designed to deal with a global pandemic of this type or magnitude.
Under existing statute, to be awarded benefits, a first responder must be able to prove that they contracted COVID on duty.
Mr. President, the last thing a grieving family needs to be worried about after the loss of a loved one is whether or not they’ll be able to successfully prove that their loved one contracted COVID on duty.
Almost as soon as the nationwide stay at home order was instituted, I began working with Senator Booker to craft language to create a presumption that would allow families to receive benefits without having to prove that their loved one contracted the deadly virus on-duty.
Senator Booker and I were determined to get this done as soon as possible because we understood that families who lost loved ones will soon begin filing for benefits.
Our bill titled, the Safeguarding America’s First Responder Act or SAFR, was introduced on May 5th, one day after the Senate returned to session.
This bill is the product of several weeks of friendly negotiations and input from fire groups and police groups.
The bill garnered a total of 22 bipartisan co-sponsors, including the entire New York and New Jersey delegation.
Last Thursday, the Senate unanimously passed our bill, and it now sits in the House where we hope it will receive immediate consideration.
I know that our colleagues in the House care deeply about first responders.
I know this because for the past year, I’ve been working with Congressman Pascrell and others on several other reforms to the PSOB program.
There is no excuse for this bill not to receive a vote as soon as possible.
It’s the only bill of its kind that has the support of the International Association of Fire fighters, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and several state and federal police groups.
It was co-authored by Senator Booker, and features the support of 11 Democrat and 10 Republican Senators as original co-sponsors including the Senate Minority Leader.
SAFR also received the support of the Department of Justice, which stands ready to pay out benefits to grieving families but is limited by statute as to what they can do.
Simply put, this bill is a no brainer.
I urge Speaker Pelosi to schedule a vote on SAFR as soon as the House returns to session.
I yield to my colleague and esteemed friend from New Jersey.