Pascrell First Responder Benefits Bill Clears House
Bicameral bill will improve access and benefits for those injured or killed in the line of duty and their families
U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ-09), the co-chair of the Congressional Law Enforcement and Congressional Fire Services Caucuses, today celebrated the House’s passage of the Protecting America’s First Responders Act of 2021 (PAFRA).
This legislation is sponsored in the House (H.R. 2936) by Rep. Pascrell and in the upper chamber (S. 1511) by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA). PAFRA makes significant improvements to the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Public Safety Officer Benefits (PSOB) program, which provides first responders who die or are permanently disabled in the line of duty with a federal benefit of $370,000 and education assistance of $1,200 a month to their children or spouse.
PAFRA passed the Senate on June 10, and today passed the House with an amendment to extend the statutory presumption guaranteeing public safety officers who contract COVID-19 are eligible for benefits should they become disabled or die from the virus. Rep. Pascrell championed legislation to enact this important presumption last Congress. PAFRA, as amended, passed the House by a vote of 420-3 and will now return to the Senate for further consideration.
“During this devastating pandemic, our nation’s first responders have stood heroically on the frontlines keeping communities safe. Every day they go to work, our firefighters, police, and EMS have risked their lives and the lives of their families. The last year was the deadliest ever for our nation’s public safety officers. COVID has made clear as day that more must be done to support these heroes,” said Rep. Pascrell. “My bipartisan legislation with Senator Grassley will guarantee that first responders and their families get their benefits without delay or red tape should the worst come to pass. Now that the House has amended our bill to extend the critical presumption ensuring families of first responders fallen to COVID receive their owed benefits, I urge quick Senate consideration so we can get this vital legislation to President Biden’s desk as soon as possible. The past eighteen months has been difficult for our communities and unbearable for our men and women in uniform. These brave individuals have protected us at our lowest moment. The least we can do is protect the benefits they’ve earned.”
“Fire fighters and emergency medical responders make significant sacrifices to serve their communities every day, and should not need to worry about their families’ financial security should they sustain lasting injuries or lose their life in the line of duty. PAFRA will help ensure responders’ families are cared for in the face of catastrophe,” said Edward A. Kelly, General President of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF).
“I’d like to congratulate and thank Representative Pascrell for getting his bill, the Protecting America’s First Responders Act (PAFRA), passed in the House of Representatives. It is absolutely critical that the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits program works for public safety officers and their families, and passage of PAFRA represents a huge step in the right direction,” said Steven W. Hirsch, Chair of the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC).
“The PSOB program is not helpful to officers who are disabled in the line of duty and most seriously injured officers are denied PSOB benefits, even though they would be viewed as eligible by almost every other component of the Federal government. This legislation ensures that the PSOB program will work as intended for our injured officers and expedite the processing of all claims. In addition, the law as amended will extend the COVID-19 presumption for another two years. We are proud to have played a part in developing this bill and getting it to the House floor today,” said Patrick Yoes, National President of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).
“FLEOA fought for years to have the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) program created in order to support officers killed or injured in the line of duty. Congress meant for this important program to support officers and their families. Unfortunately far too many officers are unable to qualify for any type of disability benefit due to how the law was written, including heroic 9/11 responders who continue to face lingering health issues metastasizing years later after the attack. FLEOA appreciates the bipartisan and bicameral leadership of Representative Pascrell and Senator Grassley to ensure officers are able to access the PSOB program benefits they are entitled to and have earned,” said Larry Cosme, National President of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA).
“The goal of the Protecting America’s First Responders Act is to help protect the ability of survivors, disabled officers and their families to get the death and disability benefits they so rightly deserve. This important legislation will ensure that officers who are disabled in the line of duty are not left behind by the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) Program and that all children of our fallen or disabled heroes are able to benefit from the Public Safety Officers’ Education Assistance Program. NAPO thanks Representative Pascrell for his efforts to secure passage of this important legislation in the House, thus ensuring that America’s public safety officers, who put their lives on the line every day in service to our nation, get the benefits promised to them,” said Bill Johnson, Executive Director of the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO).
Currently, first responders permanently disabled in the line of duty are only eligible for Public Safety Officer Benefits (PSOB) if they can never again perform any compensated work. This high bar leaves behind far too many public safety officers. PAFRA corrects this by ensuring disabled first responders whose work is for therapeutic purposes, involves simple tasks, or provides special accommodations can still receive benefits. The bill also provides for retroactive disability benefits to public safety officers who responded to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, allowing those first responders who became permanently disabled from their heroic work at Ground Zero to re-apply for disability benefits.
The Protecting America’s First Responders Act also addresses lengthy delays in processing benefit claims, so that impacted officers and families aren't left waiting for their owed relief during the most difficult of times. For cases pending longer than 365 days, PAFRA indexes the award amount to the date of final determination, rather than the date of death or injury, so families aren’t financially penalized for the delay. Additionally, it increases the interim death benefits amount from $3,000 to $6,000 and ties it to the consumer price index so Congress does not have to readjust it again.
Further, PAFRA extends benefits to certain public safety officers not currently covered, including officers who act outside of their jurisdiction in an emergency situation, trainee officers, and fire-police who handle traffic and crime scene management. Finally, PAFRA closes a loophole in the PSOB program where children born after the death or disability of a public safety officer are not able to receive education benefits. PAFRA mandates that the U.S. Department of Justice provide back pay to children who qualify for the educational benefits but failed to receive a payout in time due to the processing delays and allows post-born children to be included in the educational benefits.
The Protecting America’s First Responders Act of 2021 has been endorsed by the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA), National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO), Sergeants Benevolent Association of the NYPD (SBA), the National Association of School Resource Officers, How2LoveOurCops, and Wounded Blue.
The legislation is sponsored in the House by Reps. Pascrell, Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA-01), Joe Courtney (D-CT-02), John Rutherford (R-FL-04), Markwayne Mullin (R-OK-02), Julia Brownley (D-CA-26), Tom O'Halleran (D-AZ-01), Don Bacon (R-NE-02), and Andrew Garbarino (R-NY-02). Companion legislation in the Senate is sponsored by Sens. Grassley, Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Steve Daines (R-MT), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Jon Tester (D-MT), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).
Rep. Pascrell has worked tirelessly to provide support for public safety officers under the PSOB program. On April 10, 2020, he led a letter of 159 Members which urged that public safety officers who contract COVID-19 be presumed eligible for PSOB death or disability benefits.
On April 14, 2020, Pascrell joined House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY-10) in introducing the Public Safety Officer Pandemic Response Act (H.R. 6509), legislation to ensure public safety officers who contract COVID-19 in the line of duty are eligible for PSOB benefits should they become disabled or die from the virus. H.R. 6509 was included in the HEROES Act, which passed the House of Representatives on May 15, 2020. On August 14, 2020, Rep. Pascrell praised the signing into law of the Safeguarding America's First Responders Act (S. 3607), companion legislation led by Senator Grassley and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) to provide such a presumptive PSOB benefit for public safety officers who die or become disabled from COVID-19.