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Bills propose COVID-19 retirement perks for Massachusetts first responders

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(The Center Square) – A Massachusetts legislative panel on Tuesday heard impassioned pleas from several first responders about a proposed series of benefits changes as the long-term impact of COVID-19 is reviewed.

The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Service is considering nearly 50 Senate and House bills about public employees’ pensions and retirement plans. Some bills are tailored to specific professionals, while others have broader implications.

The committee is accepting written and video testimony through the end of the month. More than a dozen speakers offered formal verbal testimony when the committee held its formal hearing on the bills during a 90-minute session.

Of the various pieces of legislation under review, Senate Bill 1619 and Senate Bill 1624 garnered the most robust testimony within the confines of the public hearing.

SB 1619 proposes a COVID-19 retirement credit to public employees working as first responders who were working as essential workers at the height of the pandemic in 2020 and the first half of 2021. As proposed, the credit would be added to an employee’s calculation for retirement eligibility.

SB 1624 proposes enhanced benefits to first responders who incur disability or death from infectious diseases caught while on duty and performing services.

Sen. Nick Collins, D-Boston, the presenter of both bills, discussed their rationale.

“They’re sort of intertwined,” Collins said. “Obviously, during the pandemic, our first responders and public health and safety workers were exposed. I wanted to continue to have a conversation about what that means with the impact to them and their careers.”

Sam Dillon, president of Boston Firefighters International Association of Firefighters Local 7018, said the pandemic shined a spotlight on the impact communicable diseases can have on first responders.

“Each and every time our members respond to one of these incidents, they are placing themselves in an incredibly elevated risk of physical violence, needle sticks, and catching contagious kinds of communicable diseases,” Dillon said.

Paul Jacques, a legislative agent with the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, offered similar sentiments in his testimony.

“For us, as firefighters, the pandemic hasn’t ended,” Jacques said.

Larry Calderone, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, said the bills are important because they benefit not only public workers but also family members with the enhanced benefits offered when needed.

“The pandemic has affected everyone across the country,” Calderone said. “We were on the frontlines every day and night throughout the pandemic.”

House Bill 3857, which proposes retirement incentives for public employees in higher education, also was discussed at the hearing. The proposed legislation would provide one-time incentive payments for employees looking to resign or retire.

Rep. Carmine Lawrence Gentile, D-Framingham, the presenter of HB 3857, said it carries several objectives, including swapping out higher-paid senior employees with lower-paid newcomers.

He also said the changeover could encourage a broader and more diverse array of workers through a “gradual and painless” process.

“Our state schools will also provide an enhanced learning experience for students and a more inclusive learning environment with the role models and mentors for students of color and new perspectives that drive research and innovation,” Gentile said.

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