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Chicago mayor, state comptroller spar over benefits to cops disabled by COVID-19

Comptroller Susana Mendoza accused the city of setting impossible standards for cops to receive benefits


Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot

Brian Cassella

By Hank Sanders and Gregory Pratt
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — In dueling news conferences, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza clashed over whether the city’s benefits for police officers disabled by COVID-19 is fair to cops.

At issue is a ruling by the city pension board that denied Mendoza’s police officer brother, Sgt. Joaquin Mendoza, full disability benefits after he was infected with COVID-19 and was disabled. Susana Mendoza accused the city of setting impossible standards for cops to receive benefits and criticized the mayor’s political appointees on a pension board for a decision giving him fewer benefits.

For her part, Lightfoot said she takes police officer safety seriously but defended the board’s decision as having been issued by a board and affirmed by a court.

“It’s not for me to second-guess a decision that was rendered by a board,” Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot also said she doesn’t believe the standard is too high.

“Let’s work to fix what is broken, if it’s broken, but the leveling of accusations on people for following the law is simply unnecessary, unfair and false,” Lightfoot said.

Just a week before the municipal election in which Lightfoot is seeking a second term, Mendoza sought to blame the mayor’s appointees on the Policemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund board for voting to deny duty benefits to her brother and another officer. Mendoza claims that more than a dozen other officers who contracted COVID-19 have disability cases “in the pipeline.”

“I do hold the mayor accountable because that’s her board,” Mendoza said. “And so she can’t say with one face that you support the men and women in uniform, our first responders, and then do what they did to them.”

Four of the eight members of the police pension board are appointed by the mayor.

Mendoza said Tuesday she’s seeking passage of state legislation that would grant police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians who survived COVID-19 the duty disability benefits.

Mendoza said her brother contracted COVID-19 in 2020 while working 17 straight days on the job, according to a news release. Mendoza said her brother spent 72 days in the hospital, suffered kidney failure, lost his ability to use his left arm and suffered five strokes.

Duty disability provides 75% of the officer’s salary and free health insurance. On ordinary disability, an officer receives 50% compensation and must pay for health insurance.

“You can imagine my shock, disbelief and frankly, disgust when my brother’s claim for duty disability benefits was denied,” Mendoza said.

Prior to the mayor’s own news conference on the matter Tuesday, her office released a statement denying her influence on the pension board vote, which occurred nearly a year ago. The board voted 4-3, with three of the four “no” votes from Lightfoot appointees. The decision was later upheld in court after Joaquin Mendoza challenged it.

“The board has always acted independently and votes based on the information presented,” a Lightfoot spokesperson wrote. “The mayor is not involved in any pension board decisions nor would it have been ethical or appropriate for her to involve herself in any such decisions.”

The statement also said Lightfoot’s administration has urged the “pension boards consult outside medical experts to advise the boards on COVID-related disability claims and be transparent with claimants about the standards that must be met to have consideration for full or partial disability.”

The statement also advised first responders to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Lightfoot’s vaccine mandate for city workers was particularly controversial in the Police Department and resulted in the city and the local police union suing each other.

Susana Mendoza’s office responded that she also is a “strong advocate” for vaccines but that “is not at issue here” because the officers in question were infected before vaccines were available.

Joaquin Mendoza’s former supervisor, Eric Winstrom, said he was also frustrated by the decision to deny Mendoza duty disability.

“If you’re saying we support the police and then this happens, it’s difficult to reconcile that,” said Winstrom, a former Chicago Police Department commander who is now police chief in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “It doesn’t make sense. The pension board in my mind absolutely got it wrong.”

Susana Mendoza was joined Tuesday by several aldermen, firefighters and police officers. Among them was Officer Diana Cordova-Nestad, who spoke softly from a chair and had a tube running to her nose, which she attributed to the complications she suffered from COVID-19.

“We don’t find you fit for duty, but we’re taking away your health benefits,” Cordova-Nestad said, recalling a meeting with her supervisor. “It felt like it was just ripped right out of my chest. That’s all I knew was my work. That’s all I worked for.”

On deciding to speak out about this just before Election Day, Mendoza said “the timing is dictated by the courts,” an apparent reference to a recent court ruling against her brother.

Mendoza said she’s “not taking a position” on the mayor’s race. “This is not an issue of politics, that’s not why we’re here today. I’m here specifically to shine a light on an injustice that’s happening in our city.”

But the issue highlights an ongoing challenge for the mayor as she campaigns for reelection: how much support she gives to police.

Rising to prominence as a police reform advocate, Lightfoot has been criticized for not doing enough to support officers. Her administration has faced strong criticism for repeatedly canceling officers’ days off. Lightfoot initially defended the cancellations, telling reporters that police officers get “an incredible amount of” time off before introducing some scheduling policies she said would help alleviate the issue.

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