HARTFORD, CT — After a stalled effort following a five-hour debate the night before, the Senate unanimously passed a bill Thursday that will extend workers’ compensation benefits to police and firefighters suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Members of the Senate spent hours Wednesday night expressing support for SB 164 which would give police, firefighters and parole officers the opportunity to receive up to 52 weeks of benefits while seeking treatment after witnessing a tragic event.
But the effort was quickly tabled as a vote was about to occur when Republicans introduced a last-minute amendment to extend the same benefits to all emergency medical personnel.
After a compromise was struck Thursday to have the Labor and Public Employee Committee study the feasibility of including EMS and corrections officers by the next session, the bill passed.
The legislation expands the definition of personal injury to include mental-health injuries brought on by experiencing or witnessing a tragic event. Under the provisions, firefighters, police and parole officers — about 36,000 state and local employees — would be eligible to seek treatment without fear of losing their jobs and would collect workers’ compensation benefits if they needed to be off the job for a period of time.
The events that would trigger eligibility for workers’ compensation include witnessing the death or disfigurement of a person, viewing a deceased child, and treating or caring for a person who dies shortly thereafter. The employees would have to seek treatment to receive the benefits and be cleared by a licensed professional to return to work.
Passage of the bill in the Senate was a seminal moment for Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who has been a champion of mental-health treatment for first responders for years.
“This bill has been for me sort of a labor of love to provide people with some help for an injury they receive on the job that is not only a physical injury, but an injury to the mind, heart and soul,” Osten said minutes before the final vote took place.
It had first been introduced in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings that killed 20 children and six adults.
During the debate, several senators told their personal stories of dealing with tragic events, including Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, and Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, who are retired police officers.
Osten conceded in a statement issued after the vote that business and municipal leaders had bucked the bill over cost concerns.
Many ambulance services in the state are privately owned, and raised the same concerns about the cost of providing workers’ compensation for employees. EMS responders, however, were vocal about being left out when the bill began to gain traction this session.
The compromise to have the Labor Committee examine the issue leaves the door open for the addition of EMS personnel and correction officers when there is more time to address those issues.
“This is a great opportunity to include individuals who are not covered today,” said Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, who co-chairs the Labor Committee.
The bill moves to the House for consideration before its June 5 adjournment.