Union Says Miami Beach Cops Caught Zika on Duty, But City Won't Pay Their Bills

Miami Beach Police Sgt. Michelle Sayegh lives in Broward County. So Miami Beach Fraternal Order of Police President Bobby Jenkins says he finds it particularly unlikely she caught the Zika virus sitting at home. But by day, she works on Ocean Drive, in one of the only two Zika "active transmission zones" in all of Florida.

Sayegh and the FOP are adamant she caught the virus on duty and therefore deserves workers' compensation for her hospital bills. But the City of Miami Beach doesn't agree, and has stuck her with the bills.

Sayegh is one of two Miami Beach officers who've caught Zika. But Jenkins tells New Times that the city has denied both cops workers' compensation insurance, and he says his union has been fighting to get both officers' hospital bills paid for two months to no avail.

"They're definitely ducking around it," Jenkins says. "The cops feel that if they do their job, they're not going to get covered. They're afraid to get Zika. But they don’t get the luxury to say, 'I'm not going to go to work today.' They're required to be there ten to 12 hours a day out in the open."

To add insult to injury, Jenkins says, Sayegh was originally granted workers' compensation, only for the city to yank it away from her days later. The other officer was denied outright.

Normally, employers are forced to pay bills for workers who are injured on the job or become sick because of mandatory working conditions. But it's nearly impossible to prove when or where an employee caught a virus. Zika in particular has spread in random pockets across Miami-Dade County.

This past Friday, Jenkins sent Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine a letter urging the city to develop some sort of workers' comp plan to help the city's first-responders by Monday. His office has not yet responded to Jenkins' letter.

"Despite efforts to mitigate the issue in Miami Beach, the number of Zika cases continues to rise, and as recently as last week, there was another pool of infected mosquitoes discovered in the city," he wrote. "We think it is inappropriate and irresponsible on the part of those who govern Miami Beach to ignore this issue while our first responders continue to be exposed to the virus and its effects without the guarantee of any healthcare recourses being extended to them, despite the fact that their risk of exposure is exponential in comparison to the rest of the population."

Jenkins says Sayegh suffers from "joint pain, pain in the back of her eyes, a migraine-type thing, hearing issues, all connected to Zika."

The FOP president says the second officer, a motorcycle cop with 20 years on the force, "is in the beginning stages of it." That officer has declined to out himself publicly, but Jenkins says the cop lives in Miami-Dade County.

Jenkins says the police union provides the officers with insurance, but they are responsible for any deductibles and other out-of-pocket expenses, as well as any days of work they miss due to the virus. He says the city finally let Sayegh take paid administrative leave after she missed multiple days of work.

City spokesperson Melissa Berthier says the decision is out of the mayor's hands. Workers' comp claims in Miami Beach are handled by the national management company CorVel, which decides whom to approve, she says.

"We're working on a letter in response to Bobby's letter," Berthier says. But the city says it will be next to impossible to prove which specific mosquito gave either of the cops Zika.

Jenkins, however, doesn't buy that argument.

"If we go to a hazmat call [and contract a disease], we’re covered," he says. "So if we get Zika and contract it, you should be covered."

Labor lawyers across Florida have begun gearing up to deal with Zika-related workers 'comp claims. In September, multiple lawyers told New Times that companies that do a lot of outdoor work, such as construction firms and outdoor restaurants, have quickly begun to prepare for workers' compensation battles related to Zika.

"It’s going to be a tremendous challenge when there’s somebody working on a construction crew who claims a workers' compensation injury after being bitten by a mosquito at work," Phillip Russell, a Tampa-based labor lawyer with the firm Ogletree Deakins, said in September.

That battle is now upon Miami Beach. In his letter to Levine, Jenkins said he expected the city to "show benevolence" and quickly move to help its officers.

"Unfortunately, the city has yet to show any benevolence or even willingness to establish a protocol that is acceptable for determining eligibility of workers compensation benefits as it relates to Zika," he wrote.

If the city doesn't change its mind, Jenkins says his only other option is to lobby the state to change its workers' comp laws. Jenkins is also the head of the Florida State Fraternal Order of Police.

"This is not only a Miami Beach thing," Jenkins says. "It's the whole state of Florida. If we set the precedent for Zika, no one is gonna take care of it."

Sayegh, meanwhile, is already back at work on Ocean Drive.
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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.