Miami Beach to Cops: To Get Zika Workers' Comp, Show Us Specific Mosquito That Bit You

Labor lawyers warned New Times in September that getting workers' compensation after you catch the Zika virus would be difficult.

But now it appears that applying for Zika-related workers' compensation with the City of Miami Beach might be straight-up impossible. In a letter sent to the Miami Beach Police union president yesterday, City Manager Jimmy Morales said cops who want the city to pay their hospital bills will have to pinpoint the exact Zika-carrying mosquito that bit them.

"He/she must show that the exposure/bite took place while on duty and identify the specific infected mosquito," Morales wrote in the letter.

It's more than an academic question for some Miami Beach cops. At least two officers have Zika and are certain they caught it while on patrol in the Zika hot zone, says Bobby Jenkins, head of Miami Beach's police union.

The first officer, Michelle Sayegh, lives in Broward County, miles from either of the state's two Zika "active transmission zones," which are both in Miami-Dade County. Sayegh works as a cop on Ocean Drive, well within Miami Beach's Zika zone. The police union says that Sayegh was initially granted workers' compensation but that it was yanked from her days later. The second Zika-positive cop, a 20-year veteran, was denied outright.

In most cases, employees must pay hospital bills for workers who are injured or become ill while on the job. Jenkins accuses the city of holding its employees to an insane standard to prove they caught Zika at work.

The outcome of the fight could have big implications nationally. Labor lawyers warn the first few Zika workers' comp cases in Florida could set a precedent for tropical-disease cases across the nation.

The police union provides its members medical insurance. But Jenkins says the two cops with Zika were forced to take sick leave and pay for any of their deductibles. Sayegh was later given her sick days back and placed on paid administrative leave, but Jenkins says the case is more about setting a precedent for all city employees, not just Sayegh or the police department.

"If we set the precedent for Zika, no one is gonna take care of it," Jenkins said yesterday.

He said he's been fighting Miami Beach for two months to get the city to "show benevolence" and develop a process for its employees to get their hospital bills paid if they catch Zika at work. He sent the city a letter demanding changes by Monday, October 31, but the city did not respond until yesterday.

A spokesperson for the Fraternal Order of Police could not immediately comment on Morales' letter. Jenkins himself could not be reached.

The city, however, says it's basically impossible to prove that either cop caught Zika on duty. In his letter to Jenkins yesterday, Morales said the two cops have not sent the proper medical documents to qualify for workers' comp in the first place. He also said that the city has received "limited/insufficient" medical records from the two cops — that both officers have not released their records in writing to the city, and one officer has not submitted any test results.

Morales also castigated the union for blowing the situation out of proportion. In Jenkins' letter Friday, he stated that infection risks for first responders were "exponential in comparison to the rest of the population," a statement that Morales said was untrue. Instead, he said, Miami Beach residents are forced to deal with the brunt of the virus' effects. He also said the two police officers are not the only city employees who have caught Zika.

"To reiterate, unlike heart conditions, there is no presumption that Zika is an occupational disease," Morales wrote. "Miami Beach is applying the workers' compensation law properly, and, based on the existing workers' compensation statutes, a denial of both known recent claims is warranted."

He then added, "If the Claimant can produce the proper medical and scientific evidence which is absent at this time, then we will obviously reconsider."

So if you work on the Beach and want to get workers' comp for Zika, you'd better hope the next mosquito that bites you leaves its information before flying away.

Here's the letter in full:

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.