Conn. Considers Expanding Workers’ Comp to Help Emergency Workers

January 21, 2013

Post-traumatic stress was so great for some first responders who arrived at Sandy Hook Elementary School minutes after a gunman killed 20 children and six educators that the Connecticut legislature is considering a measure expanding workers’ compensation to help emergency workers cope.

State Sen. Cathy Osten, a U.S. Army veteran, compares the work of first responders arriving on scenes of killing sprees to what soldiers must do.

“We’ve certainly come a long way in recognizing the value of taking care of armed forces veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Osten, the Senate chairwoman of the Labor Committee. “But right now our state laws limit what is covered by workers’ comp, and it’s something we need to address.”

The Labor Committee plans to introduce the legislation, she said.

The Newtown Board of Police Commissioners has asked for state law to be changed to provide benefits to those who suffered physical and emotional injury after arriving at the school minutes after a gunman killed 20 children and six educators Dec. 14. Scott Ruszczyk, president of the police union, said 13 officers have been directly affected by last month’s shooting.

The union has said some officers who responded were so traumatized that they weren’t working and had to use sick time and risked going without a paycheck.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is characterized by a persistent re-experiencing of the trauma, avoiding talking about what happened, withdrawal from friends and family and an inability to concentrate or being easily startled, said Dr. David Tolin, a clinical psychologist at the Institute of Living in Hartford.

For a few, treatment is necessary. But for most, “it just gets better as the distance grows,” Tolin said.

Authorities say the students and educators were shot with a high-powered, military-style rifle loaded with ammunition designed to inflict as much damage as possible. All the victims had been shot at least twice, the medical examiner said, and as many as 11 times.

Osten said Connecticut’s workers’ comp law is narrowly defined and does not cover a worker “who sees something horrific.”

“Workers’ compensation is not only about physical injuries, it’s about the psychological and emotional trauma that occurs around events such as Newtown and in the daily street shootings we hear about in Connecticut.”

Osten said she expects the legislation will increase costs, which have not yet been determined.

The state Insurance Department recently allowed insurers to increase workers’ comp premiums by as much as 7.1 percent. The amount may be different depending on market conditions, said John A. Mastropietro, chairman of the state Workers’ Compensation Commission.

Among the factors driving the increase are a rising number of workplace injuries and higher medical costs.

Mastropietro said two high-profile workplace tragedies in Connecticut in 2010 contributed to high payouts. A power plant under construction in Middletown exploded after natural gas ignited, killing six workers and injuring 50 on Feb. 7, 2010. The following August, a worker at a Manchester beer distributor shot 10 people, eight of them fatally, and killed himself.

If the legislature extends workers’ compensation coverage, it will restore access to benefits that lawmakers ended in 1993, Mastropietro said. Workers previously could be compensated for “a mental claim” not tied to a physical incident, he said. Some claims could have been due to unfair job ratings by supervisors that caused stress, leading to a workers’ compensation claim, he said.

Changes in workers’ compensation law sought to end that type of practice, Mastropietro said.

A business advocacy group says the 7.1 percent rise in workers’ compensation is worrying. However, allowing first responders to claim workers’ compensation would not have an impact on business costs because police, firefighters and others are public employees covered by municipal insurance, said Laura Cummings, a staff attorney at the Connecticut Business & Industry Association.

Legislative changes in the early 1990s that ended many claims for non-physical injuries or trauma “really helped business,” she said.

Osten said she will push hard for the measure.

“This is something right to do for people who responded so heroically,” she said.

 

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