Two bills under consideration this legislative session seek to expand the state’s workers’ compensation law to cover those who suffer severe mental or emotional distress after witnessing extreme workplace violence.
One bill, SB 593, has been introduced by the Labor and Public Employees Committee. It would expand coverage under the Workers’ Compensation Act to those who have certain “mental or emotional impairments” due to witnessing the death or maiming of another person in the workplace.
Similar legislation has failed in previous years.
In the past, workers’ compensation claims could be filed by those who suffered emotional or mental distress even if they sustained no accompanying physical injury. But in 1993, amid cost concerns, the law was changed so that those with emotional or mental trauma could not file a claim unless they also were physically injured.
Lawmakers on the Labor and Public Employees Committee introduced the bill this year because they have “learned over the years” that experiencing something traumatic can have a lasting effect on workers, said committee co-Chairman Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven.
The current law “does not reflect the reality” that many workers experience, according to Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven. “It is very possible to have severe, traumatic mental health issues that are not necessarily accompanied by a physical injury.”
The law as it stands now “just seems to be unfair, just doesn’t seem to recognize the reality of the significant disabilities that can occur,” he said.
Looney was among those who testified in support of the bill at a Jan. 29 public hearing.
Andrew Matthews, president of the Connecticut State Police Union, also spoke in support of the bill, noting the trauma many police officers face on the job. Ted Scholl Jr., legislative representative for the Connecticut State Firefighters Association, testified in favor of the bill as well.
Others opposed the measure. David Lowell, president of the Association of Ambulance Providers, said the group has “significant concerns” about the burden the bill would put on the ambulance industry.
“Ambulance providers pay some of the highest workers’ compensation rates due to the nature of the employment,” Lowell testified. “This bill would cause an increasing hardship on all providers at a time when Medicaid and Medicare rates have been cut.”
The bill stipulates that workers’ compensation coverage would apply to any worker who a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist diagnoses as suffering from extreme distress. The distress must be caused by witnessing the death or maiming of one or more people or witnessing the immediate aftermath, in some capacity connected to the worker’s employment.
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities opposes the bill, according to Bob Labanara, the group’s state relations manager.
Cities and towns know how important it is to help municipal employees who suffer emotional distress from their jobs, and there already are measures in place to do so, he said. The bill, however, is too ambiguous.
Words like “aftermath,” “impairment” and “maiming” have not been clearly defined, Labanara said, which would make it impractical to enforce. City and town leaders also worry about additional costs they would incur at a time when municipal budgets are already tight, he said.
Several groups that submitted testimony at the public hearing — including the Connecticut Psychiatric Society, the Connecticut Education Association and the Connecticut AFL-CIO — support the measure but said workers’ compensation coverage should be expanded even further.
Workers can be traumatized if they witness a violent act, even if no one is killed or maimed as a result, the Connecticut Psychiatric Society said in its testimony. The AFL-CIO also said in testimony the bill is a good step but “falls short.”
Winfield acknowledged that lawmakers will have to wrestle with how best to implement any law expanding workers’ compensation coverage, but said it is an important undertaking.
Looney also has introduced a related bill, S.B. 105. His bill focuses on a specific section of the Workers’ Compensation Act and seeks to expand the legal definition of “personal injury” so that it would include certain events in which a person suffers mentally or emotionally after seeing someone killed or maimed by another person on the job.
Looney said he is optimistic about the potential to expand workers’ compensation coverage this session.
“There is growing interest and support for it,” he said.
Both bills to expand coverage are being spearheaded by Democratic lawmakers, who hold a majority in both the House and Senate.