HARTFORD — A bill expanding workers’ compensation to all employees coverage for post-traumatic stress injuries received unanimous support in the State Senate, but State House members remained largely divided along party lines over claims that the measure could be abused.
The Senate passed the bill in May, while the House voted 104-44 with only nine of the 53 Republicans in support. Gov. Ned Lamont signed the bill on June 12, and it takes effect Jan. 1.
Currently, only police officers, firefighters, emergency medical service personnel, emergency 911 dispatchers and similar professions qualify for PTSI benefits under the state’s workers’ compensation laws. These individuals could receive benefits as a direct result of a qualifying event, such as witnessing a person’s death or disfigurement.
But under the new law, employees in any occupation will be eligible for PTSI benefits if they witnessed such an incident at work.
Democrats hailed the bill as compassionate and fair. Several Republicans, however, said the bill goes too far and could negatively affect how competitive Connecticut is in the workers’ compensation arena.
State Rep. Gary Turco, D-Newington, said he supported the addition of 911 dispatchers to the list of qualifying occupations in 2021.
Since then, Turco said, he’s heard from people in other fields like roofing, teaching and construction, where such incidents could happen.
“There were many individuals who testified in support of this,” he said. “Witnessing such a traumatic event can take a real toll on someone. We want them to get the care they need without forcing that individual back into the workforce.”
Turco said Connecticut’s bill is similar to legislation already signed in Colorado, Texas, Vermont and South Carolina.
“They have already enacted legislation that expands workers’ compensation coverage to protect all workers. They may, though, have different rules on things like the length of coverage.”
A worker can only collect the benefits in Connecticut, if a mental health professional examines diagnoses PTSI as a direct result of a qualifying event in the workplace. The bill also caps the benefit duration at 52 weeks and prohibits the benefits from being awarded more than four years after the event.
State Rep. Tim Ackert, R-Coventry, told CT Examiner that the bill, as written, could lead to abuse. He said he favors PTSI benefits for all workers who witness events like the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting or a major building collapse where people died, but that coverage should be determined on a case-by-case basis.
“I get the compassionate piece. I’m not a non-compassionate person,” Ackert said. “I just think it can’t be the Wild Wild West.”
For example, Ackert said, “A postal worker doing a mail delivery sees an accident with somebody hurt, maybe they are dismembered or dies. They can claim that and I think that is going too far. It could get to the point where not everyone follows the rules and that concerns me. We have been competitive [regarding workers’ compensation rates], and this [bill] can have a negative effect, unintended consequences, on the rates out there.”
According to John Quinn, an attorney with Hartford-based Quinn & Quinn, which specializes in workers’ compensation matters, weekly PTSI benefits vary and take into consideration the average wages an individual made over the previous year.
The Connecticut Business & Industry Association has railed against the bill since its proposal. Pete Myers, a lobbyist for CBIA, told CT Examiner that his organization supports “tightening up the loopholes. Given the current rules, it’s tricky to take advantage [of the system], but there could be ways people can go around the system. What if someone, for example, comes into a restaurant and has a heart attack and then they die. Then everyone [workers] who saw that gets coverage? That can be a concern.”
But Turco said he believes any abuse of the system would be miniscule.
“There is always that concern where one person out of thousands could [abuse the system],” he said. “But the huge majority of people who are not going to abuse this have suffered from real post-traumatic stress.”
Ron Etemi, who runs Watertown-based Etemi Law with his brother and specializes in workers’ compensation issues, said the new bill sends a message that Connecticut cares about its workers and “is the right thing to do.”
Etemi said the bill could potentially qualify thousands more people for PTSI benefits because “you are now covering the whole workforce.”
“Many people suffer real post-traumatic stress injuries on the job,” he said. “These events can truly mentally cripple people. It takes, in some cases, a long time to recover from post-traumatic stress injuries. It can be a lifelong treatment with cognitive behavioral therapy and medication. Sometimes, you never recover.”
State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, said he has had nightmares and flashbacks about his time working as a police officer in New London.
“You have to make [laws] available for everybody,” said Nolan, who retired from the department two weeks ago. “Why should police officers and firefighters have this coverage and not a public works worker, or a teacher, or someone in construction who might have seen a fatal incident or a serious injury on the job? It’s not different. I don’t agree with those who say we should not include them. That’s not cool.”