Unions Join Forces To Advocate Change In Law So Newtown Responders, School Staff Get Workers Compensation

Jon Lender
Contact ReporterThe Hartford Courant

Deliberations about possible legislation to expand state workers compensation to police who responded to the Newtown school massacre have changed direction: There is now a move to also include school staff members and medical examiners' personnel who were exposed to the horror.

Unions for four groups of public employees — state police, Newtown police, staff of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, and Newtown educators — have been consulting each other in a unified effort aimed at prompting legislation to obtain workers compensation benefits for anyone they represent who was at Sandy Hook Elementary School Dec. 14.

"We will work together to get the law changed," said Andrew Matthews, president of the Connecticut State Police Union. So far, legislators who have been contacted have "responded positively" to the idea of passing such legislation soon after the General Assembly convenes Jan. 9 at the state Capitol for its five-month 2013 legislative session.

Late Friday afternoon, Matthews sent an email to his union members, informing them of the discussions with the other three unions in "a collaborative effort to protect the interests of everyone that needs assistance as a result of this workplace trauma."

It was traumatic "not only for initial responders, but for everyone who had to witness the horrific scene that may never be erased," Matthews wrote. "Many were forced to witness one of the most inconceivable and deadly situations our country has ever seen in order to fulfill their duties."

Within days of the tragedy — when a gunman used a military-style semiautomatic rifle to kill 20 first-graders and six school staff members, and then shot himself — a key legislative committee chairman, Rep. Stephen D. Dargan, D-West Haven, was already talking about expanding workers compensation for police personnel.

Dargan, co-chairman of the legislature's public safety panel, said such benefits now only cover police who had to use "deadly force" or were subjected to it. As horrible as the Newtown tragedy was, no deadly force by or against police was involved. Dargan's idea was to expand eligibility to first-responders who suffer mental or emotional damage after being at the scene of such a terrible crime.

But Matthews said he and the other unions' leaders agree that everyone who was at the elementary school was exposed to a "horrific and … life-changing" event, and all of them may need counseling and time off that workers compensation would cover.

Matthews noted that lawmakers and other officials often worry about long-term costs as the result of expanding eligibility for programs — and he said he thinks it is a valid concern — but he said that in this case, the unions are talking about legislation that would be specific to the Newtown school massacre.

Dozens of employees probably would be eligible under the potential legislation, but their eligibility would only be in connection with the unprecedented incident at Newtown, Matthews said.

"Our members saw something they can never erase from their memories," Matthews said. The legislative proposal, which hasn't been put into its final form, would in effect recognize that the Newtown massacre is something that legislators "could not have envisioned" when they created the workers compensation statutes, he said.

In effect, the proposal would treat exposure to the Newtown massacre the same as any physical injury for which an employee receives compensation for treatment and recovery, Matthews said. "We have walking wounded in need of help," he said, adding that none of them should be denied such benefits "just because it isn't a physical injury."

"I think if we work together" — representatives for the employees, legislators and executive-branch officials — "we can reach common ground," Matthews said.

After hearing of Matthews' proposal, Dargan, the public safety committee co-chairman, said Friday that he had already submitted a "generic" bill to deal with the issue of benefits for responders and its contents are open to discussion. Dargan even said that he may want to provide help of some kind to volunteer emergency personnel who went to the school.

In addition to the state police union, Matthews said, other bargaining units involved in the discussion of the new proposal have been: Council 15 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), for the Newtown police; the American Federation of Teachers, for Newtown teachers; and the Administrative and Residual Employees Union, for staff members from the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Under workers' compensation, employees receive a percentage of their salary as well as medical benefits. It is separate from disability retirement benefits that are negotiated between police unions and their individual towns.

In another prominent case recently, a Stamford police officer who shot a raging chimpanzee three years ago was denied workers' compensation benefits. Many municipalities and businesses have opposed changing the compensation law because it would bring an extra financial burden for them.

Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at jlender@courant.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.

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