Survivor benefits expected for diver’s family
Sgt. Kerry Winters, a corrections officer at the Ulster County Jail, spent 15 years of his three-decade career working and training alongside deputies on the county sheriff’s dive team.
But when he died last month during an in-water training exercise, Winters’ family was not afforded the same survivor insurance benefits as would have been the other members of the team because he was a corrections officer, not a deputy sheriff.
A resolution to go before the county Legislature in November would change that, extending to Winters’ wife and two sons the 18 months of continued health insurance that the families of all sheriff’s deputies who die in the line of duty are entitled to under their contract with the county.
The deputy sheriffs are represented by the Police Benevolent Association, and the health care provision was negotiated in 2015. Corrections officers are represented by the Communications Workers of America and do not have such a provision in their contract.
County Executive Michael Hein, who along with county Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum proposed extending the health benefits to Winters’ family, called the matter one of “fundamental fairness.”
“To me, this is just an issue of fundamentally doing what’s right,” Hein said, adding that Winters lost his life training side by side with others whose families would be entitled to extended health care coverage.
County Legislature Chairman Ken Ronk, who will sponsor, the resolution, agreed.
“In my opinion, when Sgt. Winters was operating as a member of the dive team, he was operating as a sheriff’s deputy and should be entitled to the same benefit,” said Ronk, R-Wallkill.
Winters, 51, was a 30-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office when he died Sept. 22 after being found unconscious during an training exercise in the Ashokan Reservoir in town of Olive.
The sergeant, an experienced and accomplished diver who had been on the sheriff’s dive team for 15 years, was wearing full dive gear and a back-up air supply at the time.
The sheriff said Winters was missing for less than five minutes when the searchand-rescue effort began. His death was ruled an accidental drowning.
Both Ronk and Hein said they were unconcerned about the measure setting a precedent in the future, and Hein said he expects to propose the inclusion of a similar benefit in future negotiations with the Communications Workers of America for the corrections officers’ contract.
Hein said providing the Winters’ family with medical coverage for the next 18 months would cost the county $60,908.