FEATURED, FROM LEFT: McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos, and Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission, participated in McAllen’s Independence Day celebration on Saturday, July 3, 2021, in advance of the July 4, 2021, national holiday. Muñoz’ House District 36 includes about 25 percent of McAllen.
Photograph By PETER SALINAS
Government-employed first responders who are quarantined as a result of COVID-19 or other contagious diseases are now financially protected under new law shaped by Rep. Longoria, Sen. Hinojosa, Rep. Guillén, and Rep. Muñoz, reports attorney Omar Ochoa
A new state law shaped by Rep. Óscar Longoria, D-La Joya, Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, Rep. Ryan Guillén, D-Rio Grande City, and Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission, now provides financial protections to government-employed first responders who are quarantined as a result of COVID-19 or other contagious diseases, reports attorney Omar Ochoa.
The measure, House Bill 2073, requires that peace officers, emergency medical technicians, and professional firefighters be placed on paid leave by the local governments that employ them if they are ordered by a supervisor or health authority to quarantine or isolate due to a possible or known on-duty exposure to a communicable disease, such as COVID-19, explained Ochoa.
Paid leave is time allowed away from work for holiday, illness, etc. during which an individual receives his or her normal pay.
In Texas, orders for quarantine and isolation can be issued by local health authorities, the Department of State Health Services, and other government entities. Quarantine and isolation orders can be issued for individual people as well as geographic areas.
“Political subdivisions, such cities, school districts, counties, housing authorities, water districts, and community colleges, are also now required to leave all employee benefits and compensation, and reimburse any costs, including lodging, medical and transportation expenses, specifically dealing with the quarantine, according to the bill analysis of the measure, which is House Bill 2073,” said Ochoa. “This new law went into effect on Tuesday, June 15, 2021, when it was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott.”
A bill analysis is document prepared for all bills and joint resolutions reported out of committee. A bill analysis may include background information on the measure, a statement of purpose or intent, and an analysis of the content of the measure.
House Bill 2073 provides a consistent standard for how counties, cities and other political subdivisions should deal with first responders ordered to quarantine due to on-duty exposure to COVID-19 or other contagious diseases and would prevent first responders from being forced to bear burdensome costs incurred while doing their jobs under circumstances outside their control, according to the House Research Organization, which is the nonpartisan research arm of the Texas House of Representatives.
“When the COVID-19 pandemic began, many departments proactively assumed the burden of providing paid leave specifically for firefighters, peace officers, and EMTs who were potentially exposed to the virus, but some did not,” according to the bill analysis prepared by the House Research Organization.
“In some cases, departments refused to pay hotel bills for first responders who had to isolate themselves. Some first responders were forced to use regular sick leave or even vacation time during quarantine, and some completely exhausted their sick leave,” the bill analysis noted. “While some federal funds are available through the Family and Medical Leave Act to reimburse workers for time off due to COVID-19 quarantine, these are limited, and some departments have opted not to use them. In some cases, local firefighter and police associations stepped in to cover costs, but this should be the responsibility of the local government that employs first responders.”
The key involvement by the Rio Grande Valley state legislative delegation helped make this protection possible, Ochoa said.
“Rep. Longoria, in his role as a joint author of House Bill 2073, Rep. Guillén and Rep. Muñoz, as coauthors of House Bill 2073, and Sen. Hinojosa, as cosponsor of House Bill 2073, were among the key legislative leaders who successfully rallied the needed support to pass it out of the Texas Legislature for Gov. Abbott to approve,” Ochoa said. “In addition, everyone from the Valley’s state legislative delegation supported this vital measure.”
Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, was the primary author of House Bill 2073, while Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, was the sponsor of that legislation.
As the primary author, Burrows is the legislator who filed House Bill 2073, and guided it through the legislative process (also called the primary author).
A bill is a type of legislative measure that requires passage by the House or Representatives and the Senate in the Texas Legislature legislature and action by the governor in order to become effective. A bill is the primary means used to create and change the laws of the state.
“Filed” is used to refer to a measure that has been introduced into the legislative process and given a number.
As a joint author, Longoria was a member authorized by Burrows to join in the authorship of the measure and have his or her name shown following the primary author’s name on official printings of the measure, on calendars, and in the journal.
A coauthors, Guillén and Muñoz were authorized by Burrows to join in the authorship of the measure. A coauthor must be a member of the chamber in which the bill was filed.
As sponsor, Springer was the legislator authorized by Burrows to guide House Bill 2o73 through the Senate.
As cosponsor, Hinojosa was the legislator authorized by Springer to help lead the way for House Bill 2073 though the Senate.
The bill analysis, published on Tuesday, April 6, 2021, follows:
HOUSE RESEARCH ORGANIZATION
House Bill 2073:
Requiring paid quarantine leave for some first responders
House Committee on County Affairs — favorable, without amendment
Vote by Members, House Committee on County Affairs:
7 ayes — Coleman, Stucky, Anderson, López, Spiller, Stephenson, J. Turner
1 nay — Cason
1 absent — Longoria
Witnesses who appeared before the House Committee on County Affairs
For — Daniel Buford, Bryan Firefighters Association; Chris Jones, Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT); John Wilkerson, Texas Municipal Police Association
Registered, but did not testify: Noel Johnson, JPCA; Carlos López and Jama Pantel, Justices of the Peace and Constables Association of Texas; Jack Todd, Lubbock Professional Fire Fighters Association; Glenn Deshields, Texas State Association of Fire Fighters; Mario A. Martínez, Texas State Troopers Association
Against — Registered, but did not testify: Clifford Sparks, City of Dallas; TJ Patterson, City of Fort Worth
On — Adam Haynes, Conference of Urban Counties; Russell Schaffner, Tarrant County; John Carlton, Texas State Association of Fire and Emergency Districts
House Bill 2073 would require that peace officers, emergency medical technicians, and professional firefighters be placed on paid leave by the political subdivision that employs them if they are ordered by a supervisor or health authority to quarantine or isolate due to a possible or known on-duty exposure to a communicable disease.
Political subdivisions would be required to provide to such first responders placed on quarantine leave all employee benefits and compensation and any costs specifically related to the quarantine, including lodging, medical, and transportation costs.
Political subdivisions could not reduce a paid leave balance, including sick leave, vacation time, or holidays, for such first responders in connection with quarantine leave ordered by their supervisors or health authority.
House Bill 2073 would provide a consistent standard for how counties and cities should deal with first responders ordered to quarantine due to on-duty exposure to COVID-19 or other contagious diseases and would prevent first responders from being forced to bear burdensome costs incurred while doing their jobs under circumstances outside their control.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, many departments proactively assumed the burden of providing paid leave specifically for firefighters, peace officers, and emergency medical technicians who were potentially exposed to the virus, but some did not.
In some cases, departments refused to pay hotel bills for first responders who had to isolate themselves. Some first responders were forced to use regular sick leave or even vacation time during quarantine, and some completely exhausted their sick leave.
While some federal funds are available through the Family and Medical Leave Act to reimburse workers for time off due to COVID-19 quarantine, these are limited, and some departments have opted not to use them. In some cases, local firefighter and police associations stepped in to cover costs, but this should be the responsibility of the local government that employs first responders.
By requiring paid leave specifically for quarantine, the bill would ensure that no firefighter, peace officer, or emergency medical technician faced an unexpected financial burden in addition to the other physical and psychological stresses of continuing to perform their duties during an outbreak of disease. First responders should never have to weigh personal finances as a factor in whether or not to report possible exposure to communicable diseases.
Most departments, including multiple Emergency Special District fire departments, already are handling the costs associated with the bill’s requirements without significant difficulty. House Bill 2073 would ensure that all departments and local governments similarly did the right thing.
The bill’s use of the term “communicable disease” would be neither too vague nor too broad, as the term is defined elsewhere in the statute, and the bill is intended to address not only COVID-19 but any communicable disease severe enough to warrant a quarantine order.
A specific trigger at the state level for quarantine leave to go into effect is unnecessary because the bill clearly makes the specific quarantine order by a supervisor or health authority the trigger for paid leave.
Due to this specific trigger, the bill would not automatically extend worker’s compensation benefits to any employee exposed to a disease. Instead, it would provide needed support to first responders who were ordered to quarantine but were not eligible for worker’s compensation because they had not contracted the disease.
House Bill 2073 would not attempt to mandate quarantine policies for local authorities, nor would it set a standard for determining whether or not exposure occurred on duty or limitations on the amount of quarantine leave given, as those are decisions that should be made by the relevant employers and health authorities.
The bill simply would ensure that if a decision were made to order a first responder to quarantine due to on-duty exposure, their employer assumed the costs of that decision, including paid leave for the duration of the quarantine. Employees who decided to quarantine without having been ordered to do so would not be covered by the bill’s provisions.
House Bill 2073 would impose an unspecified, unfunded mandate on local government, including on emergency services districts, which have caps on their revenue.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic is clearly the motivating event for this bill, the bill’s language of “communicable disease” would be too broad and open to interpretation, potentially allowing application of the bill’s provisions in cases of less serious diseases such as seasonal flu.
Workers who contract COVID-19 already are eligible for worker’s compensation, so the bill’s provisions would not be necessary for that circumstance. The bill also would not set a limit on the amount of paid quarantine leave that could be granted, which could lead to extensive costs for local governments.
Also, it is difficult to determine with certainty whether exposure to a communicable disease occurred while a first responder was on duty. Local governments and departments are best suited to make decisions about whether and how much paid leave should be granted based on their own collective bargaining agreements with first responders.
While the goal of this bill is laudable, it would be improved by including a more clearly identified statewide trigger for when paid quarantine leave went into effect.
FINAL VERSION OF HOUSE BILL 2073 SIGNED BY THE GOVERNOR
The final version of House Bill 2073 that was signed into law by the governor follows:
House Bill 2073, relating to quarantine leave for firefighters, peace officers, detention officers, and emergency medical technicians employed by, appointed by, or elected for a political subdivision.
BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF TEXAS:
SECTION 1. The heading to Chapter 180, Local Government Code, is amended to read as follows:
CHAPTER 180. MISCELLANEOUS PROVISIONS AFFECTING OFFICERS AND EMPLOYEES OF MORE THAN ONE TYPE OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT.
SECTION 2. Chapter 180, Local Government Code, is amended by adding Section 180.008 to read as follows:
Sec. 180.008. PAID QUARANTINE LEAVE FOR FIREFIGHTERS, PEACE OFFICERS, DETENTION OFFICERS, AND EMERGENCY MEDICAL TECHNICIANS.
(a) In this section:
(1) “Detention officer” means an individual appointed or employed by a political subdivision as a county jailer or other individual responsible for the care and custody of individuals incarcerated in a county or municipal jail.
(2) “Emergency medical technician” means an individual who is:
(A) certified as an emergency medical technician under Chapter 773, Health and Safety Code; and
(B) employed by a political subdivision.
(3) “Firefighter” means a paid employee of a municipal fire department or emergency services district who:
(A) holds a position that requires substantial knowledge of fire fighting;
(B) has met the requirements for certification by the Texas Commission on Fire Protection under Chapter 419, Government Code; and
(C) performs a function listed in Section 143.003(4)(A).
(4) “Health authority” has the meaning assigned by Section 121.021, Health and Safety Code.
(5) “Peace officer” means an individual described by Article 2.12, Code of Criminal Procedure, who is elected for, employed by, or appointed by a political subdivision.
(b) The governing body of a political subdivision shall develop and implement a paid quarantine leave policy for firefighters, peace officers, detention officers, and emergency medical technicians who are employed by, appointed by, or elected for the political subdivision and ordered to quarantine or isolate due to possible or known exposure to a communicable disease while on duty.
(c) A paid quarantine leave policy must:
(1) provide that a firefighter, peace officer, detention officer, or emergency medical technician on paid quarantine leave receive:
(A) all employment benefits and compensation, including leave accrual, pension benefits, and health benefit plan benefits for the duration of the leave; and
(B) reimbursement for reasonable costs related to the quarantine, including lodging, medical, and transportation; and
(2) require that the leave be ordered by the person’s supervisor or the political subdivision’s health authority.
(d) A political subdivision may not reduce a fire fighter’s, peace officer’s, detention officer’s, or emergency medical technician’s sick leave balance, vacation leave balance, holiday leave balance, or other paid leave balance in connection with paid quarantine leave taken in accordance with a policy adopted under this section.
SOUTH TEXAS COLLEGE OF NURSING AND ALLIED HEALTH TO HOST NEWS CONFERENCE JULY 14-15, 2021 DEDICATED TO HEALTH CAREERS FOR STUDENTS
The South Texas College of Nursing and Allied Health in collaboration with Region One Education Service Center will host its first-ever conference dedicated to students entering health science pathways.
South Texas College of Nursing and Allied Health Pathways Aligned to Health Science (PATHS) conference will take place at STC’s Nursing and Allied Health Campus Building A located at 1901 S. McColl Road in McAllen on Wednesday, July 14, 2021, and Thursday, July 15, 2021, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The event is set to be a collaborative project meant to provide support services and experiences for high school students interested in articulating into health sciences.
Representatives from South Texas College of Nursing and Allied Health will assist school districts in attendance with understanding the healthcare programs available to students in order for them to succeed in healthcare fields.
South Texas College of Nursing and Allied Health will be hosting sessions for advisors and counselors across Hidalgo and Starr Counties, and the conference will include presentations as well as vital materials and supplies distributed to participants in order to maximize the experience for acquiring integral healthcare field content.
“We all know that one of the duties of the high school counselors, advisors, and career technical directors is to provide information to high school students about post-secondary education and the job market,” said Dr. Jayson Valerio, Dean, South Texas College of Nursing and Allied Health. “According to the 2021 Texas Workforce Commission, we are very fortunate that there are 13 top job demands in healthcare for our local region, of which 11 healthcare programs are offered at STC.
“This PATHS conference in collaboration with Region One is an excellent opportunity for us to inform our partnering high school districts about the different healthcare programs we offer at STC,” Valerio said.
What: STC Nursing and Allied Health’s inaugural Pathways Aligned to Health Science (PATHS) conference
Why: A collaborative project meant to provide support services and experiences for high school students interested in articulating into health sciences.
Where: Nursing and Allied Health Campus Building A located at 1901 S. McColl Road in McAllen.
When: July 14-15 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Who: Hidalgo County and Starr ISD counselors and advisors. Participants need to register through Region One ESC
Founded in 1993, South Texas College is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and offers more than 127 degree & certificate options, including associate degrees in a variety of liberal art, social science, business, math, science, technology, advanced manufacturing and allied health fields of study. Additionally, South Texas College is the only community college in the State of Texas to offer five baccalaureate degrees. South Texas College has a faculty and staff of more than 2,700 to serve 28,000 students, on the college’s six campuses, two higher education centers, and one virtual campus.
Joey Gómez contributed to this article. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).