This Washington

Benefits Bill for Officers Passes First Hurdle

By Erica C. Barnett February 18, 2011

Yesterday, the senate labor, commerce, and consumer protection committee passed legislation that would require city and county police and fire departments to pay benefits to the families of law-enforcement officers who suffer a heart attack or stroke within 24 hours of  "non-routine strenuous or stressful activity."

Some cities oppose the legislation because the money for survivor benefits would come out of their pockets. The Association of Washington Cities and the Association of Washington Counties both testified against the bill; the city of Seattle is officially neutral. According to the city's budget office, between $1 and $2 million a year in survivor benefits and medical costs. Mayor Mike McGinn, who mentioned the bill as a potential hit to Seattle's budget during a recent interview on KUOW, did not respond to a request for further comment on the city's position on the bill.

I have a call out to the city's lobbying shop to find out why they're neutral on this bill but opposed to a tax break to help the UW's UPass program, which would cost the city about the same amount---$1.8 million---as paying out survivor benefits.

The bill was prompted by the death of 34-year-old Federal Way police officer Brian Walsh, who suffered a heart attack in his patrol car while maintaining a perimeter around an officer-involved shooting scene. Walsh, according to his widow Vanessa, was not overweight, didn't smoke, didn't drink much, and played in a softball league every summer. Although the federal government determined that Walsh had died in the line of duty, the state denied survivor benefits to Vanessa Walsh and the couple's three children, saying that death from a heart attack did not qualify as a line-of-duty death.

In emotional testimony at a senate labor committee meeting two weeks ago, Walsh's widow, public school teacher Vanessa Walsh, called the decision "a slap in the face for all we had done for our community and our state.

"While I was still reeling from losing him, I learned that our state---the same state my husband protected, the same state I got my teaching degree and teach sixth grade in, the same state I served the military---that same state denied benefits to my family, saying that even though my husband was in the midst of a high-adrenalin incident and had been working all night, because heeded of an apparent heart attack he did not die in the line of duty."

"To say I was in disbelief is an understatement."

Bill co-sponsor Steve Conway (D-29) says the bill would provide a badly needed check on cities that hire third-party administrators to determine who gets survivor benefits and don't always have the survivors' interests in mind.

"This isn't the first time we've had these kind of bills brought about because of cities that will not pay certain kinds of worker comp benefits to the surviving spouses or survivors of people who have been killed or injured by their jobs in some way." Conway points out that firefighters, for example, are already covered for heart attacks (but not strokes, which the bill would remedy) suffered in the line of duty.

"The stress of being a police officer is not the average stress that you have as a reporter or I have as a legislator," Conway adds.

In 2010, 162 law enforcement officers died on the job nationwide, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

The bill, known as the Brian Walsh Act, will have to pass two more committees before reaching the senate floor. According to a fiscal note attached to the bill, it will cost the state $100,000 in 2012.
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