Once upon a time in Connecticut, if someone suffered an emotional trauma at work that affected their ability to earn a living, he or she could file a claim for workers' compensation benefits.
Then in 1993, lobbyists for the business community argued that mental and emotional injury claims were pushing up the price of workers' comp insurance premiums and boosting overall costs for municipalities and businesses. As a result, state lawmakers voted to limit workers' comp benefits.
Now those benefits are available only to workers who sustain physical injuries. If those physical injuries are accompanied by emotional injuries, additional benefits are available. But, with a very few exceptions, there are no workers' comp benefits available to those who sustain emotional trauma only.
However, just as it has altered the debate over gun control, the Newtown school massacre has prompted discussions about changing workers' comp law. About 20 police officers, firefighters and teachers who were exposed to the shooting episode and its aftermath have been unable to return to work because of post-traumatic stress disorder and other emotional injuries.
John A. Mastropietro, chairman of the Connecticut Workers' Compensation Commission, has acknowledged the shootings are stirring discussion about providing lost wages and other benefits for the emergency responders and others directly impacted by the carnage. What stands in the way, he said in a press statement, is current Connecticut law.
"Most, if not everyone agrees that the circumstances which existed in the Newtown tragedy do not meet the requirements of the statute for even psychological counseling," he said.
A group of union leaders and workers' compensation attorneys wants to change that. A request for an amendment to the workers' comp law has been raised for discussion by the legislature's Labor Committee. Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, is the co-chair of the Labor Committee and a U.S. Army veteran. She said it's clear to her that workers and not just those from Newtown need to be compensated for emotional harm, just like any other injury.
"We've certainly come a long way in recognizing the value of taking care of armed forces veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, but right now our state laws limit what is covered by workers' comp and it's something we need to address," Osten said. "Workers' compensation isn't 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 and other committee members are continuing to discuss the concept of the proposed law. Although few details have been released, it appears the bill would primarily apply to those who have suffered emotional trauma after having been exposed to death or maiming while on the job.
There has already been clear opposition voiced by those who would have to pay the new benefits, including the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, which provides workers' comp insurance for Newtown school employees.