Workers’ Compensation Rights Expanding for First Responders in 2023

By David E. Mastagni and Taylor Davies-Mahaffey

In a decisive victory for California’s first responders, Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 1127 on September 29. This bill makes three improvements to the California workers’ compensation system.

First, SB 1127 shortens the window for employers to determine liability on claims for injuries suffered by first responders from 90 days to 75 days. This means that employers will have less time to accept or deny a presumptive injury claim for certain illnesses, including cancer, hernias, heart trouble, pneumonia, bloodborne infections, meningitis and tuberculosis. This shortened window also applies to lower back injuries arising from duty belts worn by peace officers.  

Next, SB 1127 allows firefighters and peace officers to receive up to 240 weeks of temporary disability benefits for presumptive cancer claims rather than the 104 weeks of temporary disability available to other injured workers. This change from 104 weeks of temporary disability within five years from the date of injury to a total of 240 weeks during the entire period of the claim means that temporary disability benefits do not have to be received within five years from the date of injury. This increase in temporary disability eligibility applies to Labor Code § 3212.1 cancer claims that arise on or after January 1, 2023.

Finally, this bill increases the penalty for employers who unreasonably deny any presumptive injury claim arising under California Labor Code §§ 3212 through 3213.2 from $10,000 to a maximum of $50,000. However, SB 1127 does not define what constitutes an “unreasonable denial,” so the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board will determine the reasonableness of a denial in the context of each case.  

On the same day, Governor Newsom also signed AB 1751, which represents another improvement in the workers’ compensation system for certain types of California’s public safety employees. This bill extends the presumption of injury for COVID-19 workplace outbreaks from January 1, 2023, to January 1, 2024; this presumption includes illness or death resulting from COVID-19 contracted during the course of employment. At the same time, AB 1751 expands the types of employees who qualify for the presumption to include active firefighting members of a fire department at: (1) the Department of State Hospitals; (2) the State Department of Developmental Services; (3) the Military Department; and (4) the Department of Veterans Affairs. Officers of a state hospital under the jurisdiction of the State Department of State Hospitals and the State Department of Developmental Services are also included.   

Ultimately, SB 1127 demonstrates a public policy emphasis on quickly investigating and providing treatment for presumptive injury claims brought by California’s first responders. Expanding temporary disability benefits to 240 weeks, while limited to cancer claims, is yet another positive shift in existing law. AB 1751 demonstrates that the state is still grappling with the effect of COVID-19 in the workplace and has now included additional types of public safety employees who qualify for the COVID-19 presumption.