Mendoza, Lightfoot Clash Over Benefits for Chicago Police Officers Disabled by COVID-19

A week before the mayor’s race, a former rival is accusing Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot of abandoning police officers afflicted by COVID-19 — a charge Lightfoot vehemently denies.

The dispute is over what sort of disability benefits Chicago police officers deserve if they contracted COVID-19 before the vaccine was available.

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The saga goes to early in the pandemic, in 2020, when COVID-19 was as rampant as were questions about it.

While many worked via Zoom per stay-at-home orders, police were still on the streets.

“You can’t arrest someone over Zoom,” Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza said.

Mendoza said her brother, CPD Sgt. Joaquin Mendoza, 57, worked 17 days straight in late fall of 2020.

One day, he had a cough. Two days later, he was rushed to the hospital with COVID-19. Susana Mendoza said he spent “42 days fighting for his life.”

“COVID viciously attacked both his renal and vascular system,” the comptroller said. “He lost both his kidneys, requiring three days of dialysis a week for the rest of his shortened life expectancy. He suffered five strokes, leaving him permanently disabled and unable to perform the one thing he loved most: his job.”

Which is why, Mendoza said, she was aghast when the Policeman’s Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago ruled that her brother did not qualify for the line-of-duty disability benefits she, as his power of attorney, applied for on his behalf.

Because Joaquin Mendoza couldn’t prove precisely when and how he contracted COVID-19, the board decided he qualified instead for a lesser benefit that comes without health care coverage.

A former CPD captain who worked with Joaquin Mendoza said the board set an impossible standard.

“He deserves this pension; there’s no doubt about it,” said former CPD Captain Francis McCarthy. “When I heard that they asked him ‘Who did you get it from, specifically?’ I almost fell out of my chair. Who in the hell can say how you caught your COVID? Can you point — anyone in this room who had it — can you point to the individual that gave it to you? I doubt it.” 

McCarthy said Joaquin Mendoza was “never a slouch.”

As a legislator in 2004, Susana Mendoza sponsored a resolution honoring McCarthy’s service and retirement.

The pension board’s split ruling came despite a 2021 state law (HB4276 / Public Act 101-0653) that said police officers who contracted COVID-19 before vaccines were available are presumed to have gotten it on the job — meaning that if they die, their family would receive line-of-duty death benefits.

It’s as if officers are worth more dead than alive, the comptroller said.

“But if you survive COVID and become disabled from it, you’re out of luck,” she said Tuesday at a news conference at Chicago City Hall. Her brother was unable to attend at his doctor’s advice that it would be unhealthy and too stressful, she said.

While Joaquin Mendoza was the first case, attorneys said up to 20 other CPD officers have similar situations that have or will be settled by the pension board.

That includes Officer Diana Cordova Nestad, who said she worked hard to get promoted at the police department, only to be found not fit for duty after contracting COVID-19 and then denied line-of-duty benefits.

The decision “felt like it (her heart) was ripped right out of my chest. It’s all I knew. It’s all I worked for,” Cordova Nestad said, sitting down and using an oxygen tube.

Cordova Nestad said she has a hard time breathing and that it hurts to breathe; she worries about her family and teenage sons.

While Cordova Nestad refrained from casting blame about her situation, Mendoza said Lightfoot is at fault for directing the mayor’s four appointees to the pension board (Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin, Chicago CFO Jennie Huang Bennett, Budget Director Susie Park and Chief Risk Officer Stephen Skardon) to make those rulings.

Mendoza called the pension board hearing a “charade” and said the decision is evidence of the administration’s contempt for police.

WTTW News’ emails and calls to the pension board did not receive a response.

Lightfoot held a last-minute media availability Tuesday afternoon. She said that while Mendoza is entitled to her emotions about her brother, the comptroller is “not entitled to make up facts.”

Lightfoot said her office took measures to protect first responders, especially early in the pandemic, and that then, and now, her heart goes out to everyone struggling with COVID-19.

“Any suggestion that I or anyone in my administration is indifferent to the cause and suffering of first responders when it comes to COVID issues is just utter nonsense,” Lightfoot said.

The mayor denied that she gave pension appointees any instruction and said it would be inappropriate and unethical for her to do so given that the board should be independent and operate without fear or favor.

“No one gets special treatment because of who they are, or to whom they’re related,” Lightfoot said, “and that doesn’t change whether in a week before an election or any other time of the year.”

Mendoza ran for mayor four years ago but lost in the first round; Mendoza backed Lightfoot in the runoff race against Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

The comptroller said her protestations against Lightfoot are not to do with politics; rather, the timing is at the mercy of court action and a legislative deadline.

In response to a lawsuit filed by Joaquin Mendoza, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Thaddeus Wilson in late January issued an opinion agreeing with the pension board’s decision; Joaquin Mendoza is now appealing.

A new proposal (HB3162) introduced in the state legislature would make it so that first responders who contracted COVID-19 before vaccines were available would be presumed to qualify for line-of-duty benefits. As drafted, it’s retroactive, meaning that if it becomes law, it would apply to both Joaquin Mendoza and Cordova Nestad.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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