A Washington State senate bill that would give workers' compensation death benefits to families of police officers who die of heart attacks recently passed an initial committee vote. If approved by the legislature, the bill would deem the death of a police officer from a heart problem or stroke as work–related if it occurred while on duty or within 24 hours of being on duty. This would make families of the deceased eligible for death benefits. The bill would also make strokes an occupational disease for firefighters.
However, in the bill's current form, employers would still have the ability to rebut heart or stroke–related workers' compensation death benefit claims if the deceased was overweight or used tobacco. The bill may have amendments added to it before it reaches a floor–wide senate vote.
The bill was prompted by a case last year in which a Federal Way police officer died of a heart attack while guarding a crime scene. The Washington State Department of Labor and Industry denied survivor benefits for the officer's family, as it did not find the officer's death to be job related. Washington is one of four states in the country to have an entirely public workers' compensation claim system.
Some have criticized the bill due to the additional costs involved at a time when the state faces a large fiscal deficit. State officials estimate in the next two–year budget, which covers spending from mid–2011 to mid–2013, the deficit alone for that period is at about $4.6 billion. Also, some have questioned the need for additional benefits noting that most police officers in the state make more than $70,000 per year and a sizeable percentage make more than $100,000, making life insurance affordable.
Public employee pay and benefits have come under the microscope recently in light of the budget battles in states such as Wisconsin and Indiana. However, unlike those states, Washington currently has a democratic governor and democratically controlled house and senate.