Each year, the city of Fort Worth receives about 1,800 workers’ compensation claims. When COVID-19 hit, the claims jumped to 2,100, about a 17% change.
With more claims comes more financial responsibility for the city; because Fort Worth’s workers’ compensation program is self-insured, it pays the costs itself. So far in fiscal year 2022, the city has spent about $1.3 million on COVID-19 related claims. By the end of the fiscal year, city officials anticipate a total cost of $2 million, a 54% change.
“We have a risk fund, and that’s the responsibility of this department to manage those funds as best as possible because it’s hard to predict what the injuries are we’re going to have in any given year,” Mark Barta, assistant human resources director, said. No one was anticipating the pandemic, meaning its effects weren’t included in any forecasting by the city.
“That’s one of the challenges of risk,” Barta said. “We try to see what we can forecast, to best protect the taxpayers’ investment in this city.”
The compensation claims stem from two departments: police and fire. While many city employees were able to work remotely in the early days of the pandemic, a state declaration of emergency meant police officers and fire firefighters continued to roam the streets of Fort Worth responding to 911 calls. First responders shouldered increased hours and new responsibilities as the pandemic continued to spread throughout the city.
“We presumed that if a firefighter or policeman caught COVID, they caught it at work,” Barta said. “It’s pretty hard to differentiate where someone caught COVID.”
In Texas, workers generally must prove they were injured or got sick while at work in order to win their claim. If a firefighter or police officer got COVID-19 during a vacation period, Barta said, the presumption did not apply.
Initially, workers’ compensation costs weren’t an eligible expense under the American Rescue Plan Act. When the federal government released updated guidance in February, it clarified that local governments could include public sector capacity expenses, including payroll and benefits for public health, public safety, or human services workers.
“Prior to that, there were no public sector capacity provisions in the guidance we had,” Kate Perry, a financial services manager with the city, said. “We felt like it was a good use of funds to keep the level of benefits that we have.”
The city previously created its own physician panel, designed to lower medical costs while providing the greatest level of care for injured employees. During the pandemic, some workers’ compensation claims have been more expensive than others. Several employees have required intensive medical treatment, according to the request form submitted by the human resources department, increasing the total cost the city bears.
“The way we manage is with appropriate, quick care with the best providers, which is usually one of the best things that we can do to help try to control expenses,” Barta said.
The City Council will make final determinations on ARPA allocations in August. After spending $146 million in federal funds, the city must decide how to spend the remaining $28 million. In all, proposals from city departments and nonprofits have a hefty — $133 million — price tag.
The department will present more information to council members Aug. 2, but there’s no guarantee the request will be funded, Perry said.
“Departments can submit proposals, but it’s really up to the council to determine the best use of city funds,” she said.
While claims have slowed down in recent months, Barta said there’s no way to tell how long the impact of COVID-19 will be felt in the city’s workers’ compensation system. Issues could arise with long-COVID symptoms, or a new variant could quickly begin infecting employees.
“I think we’re in a position that we just need to be open and be able to make sure to keep communication with staff,” Barta said. “And make sure we take care of them.”
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.
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