Back in 2012 when the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy happened I was privileged to work with the Newtown Police Union. I still do.
At the time of that horrific event, few people in this state knew or understood that the emotional impacts that first responders suffered on that awful day would largely be borne alone by the officers, without any help from insurance companies, employers, or the government.
Many entities tried to step up to help those who were impacted on that day, but it became clear early on that even government officials had a hard time grasping how the workers’ compensation system worked, and how to help the public safety officers who responded.
Under Connecticut workers’ compensation law, covered employees can receive the entire range of benefits for physical injuries. For the most part, emotional injuries are not covered unless they result from a physical injury.
For example, if a person slipped and fell at work suffering a severe back injury, that person would receive workers’ compensation benefits for the physical injury. And if that person suffered anxiety and depression as a result of the back injury, either due to the pain from the injury, or because he was now limited in his activities of daily living, those emotional injuries would also be covered.
However, if the employee simply suffered an emotional injury, without any physical component, the workers’ compensation laws in our state would not provide the worker with any protections.
This problem became starkly apparent after Sandy Hook. Those of us who work with public safety officers had been aware of the problem for years before the tragedy at the school, but nobody really began taking a serious interest in it until after Sandy Hook.
Workers’ compensation provides three basic benefits. It provides medical expense coverage so that the injured worker can obtain treatment for his illness or injury. It also provides wage replacement benefits so that while the employee is out of work recovering from injury or illness, he will receive his regular paycheck. And finally it provides a payment for permanent disabilities and lost earning capacity resultant from the injury or illness.
It is rare that those benefits are sufficient to make a person whole, and rarer still for an employee to gain a windfall from the system. But the system is designed to get a worker back to good health as quickly as possible so that he can return to work and continue to earn a living. There are plenty of horror stories about the system’s failures, but in theory it is designed to work properly with a goal of getting injured workers healthy and back to work.
For those workers, particularly in public safety, who witness tragedy and violence on a regular basis, stress disorders are a real job hazard. PTSD is real and affects many of our first responders.
Last week, the Connecticut General Assembly finally moved, nearly seven years after Sandy Hook, to provide workers compensation benefits to first responders who suffer from PTSD resultant from the performance of their duties. There are various requirements of proof that have to be met before benefits become payable, and they will be applied stringently. But finally, Connecticut’s first responders will no longer have to suffer alone when they become witnesses to appalling tragedy.