The Senate sent a bill to the House that expands workers’ compensation coverage for police and firefighters, but it’s unclear if the lower chamber has the votes to pass it.
The bill, which the Senate passed on a 25-11 vote after midnight, combines two separate bills. The first would expand workers’ compensation coverage to police officers who witness “death” in the line of duty or respond within six hours to a death. It does not apply to motor vehicle deaths. The second bill would give firefighters who don’t smoke the option to file a workers’ compensation claim for certain types of cancers related to the dangers they experience on the job.
Organizations that represent municipalities oppose both proposals and were angry they weren’t part of the conversation regarding the legislation.
Robert Labanara, director of public policy for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said the whole thing is “insulting to the mayors and first selectmen who weren’t involved in the conversation.”
He said separately there were concerns, but combining the two bills causes even more concern and it will cost the towns millions of dollars.
A statement from CCM described the bill as the “largest unfunded state mandate on towns and cities in recent history.”
House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz said he personally supports both bills, but House members had many different views of the bill. Some supported and some opposed each of the bills separately in the Democratic caucus and he doesn’t know where the caucus stands now that the two bills are combined.
“I don’t know where we are with that,” Aresimowicz said Thursday afternoon.
Firefighters have been showing up at the state Capitol over the past few days in their dress uniforms lobbying lawmakers to support the bill, which gives a professional firefighter who has been on the job for five years the ability to file a workers’ compensation claim for certain types of cancer. Volunteer firefighters would have to be on the job for 15 years in order to file a claim, which shifts to the municipality the burden of proving that a firefighter’s cancer is not related to their job.
Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said the organizations representing the towns weren’t in the room negotiating the bill, but their concerns were taken into consideration.
Osten, who is also a first selectwoman, said she keeps a close eye on the town’s budget and believes this is money well-spent.
“I don’t care if it costs slightly more money,” Osten said during a press conference Thursday afternoon.
Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, who was lobbied by firefighters Thursday afternoon outside the Senate chamber, said it’s the combination of the two bills that has presented a challenge for him.
“You changed the rules for me,” Hwang said. “We’re going to make a decision that’s going to affect our municipalities.”
He said he fears the combination of the two bills places too high of a burden on the municipalities in “these difficult and challenging economic times.”
Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said he grappled with both of these bills. He said the mental illness related to a police officer who witnesses a death is a much more subjective diagnosis.
“No one is going to make up cancer,” Kissel said.
He said he was inclined to support the “firefighter-cancer bill” but “on balance now that the bills are combined, I can’t support it. I feel really bad about that.”
He said by combining the two bills, proponents of each are jeopardizing passage of the bill in the House.
“My belief was that there was probably more support for the firefighter cancer bill as a standalone than these two bills together,” Kissel said.
He said there was more objective evidence regarding firefighter cancer, but Osten said it’s about time “we recognize the brain is a part of the body.”
When the brain “suffers an injury, we should take care of it like any other injury,” Osten said.
The bill is not retroactive and would not specifically apply to the officers who responded to the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown in 2012.
Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, said that as a former mayor he was inclined to vote against the bill, but concluded he can’t ignore the risk police and firefighters take every day just doing their job.
“To ignore the risk would be wrong,” Cassano said. “I’m glad you combined them. How are you going to pick? . . . They’re both important. They’re both necessary.”