Monday, February 11, 2013

Bill to help Newtown police faces obstacles

Published 7:25 pm, Saturday, February 2, 2013
NEWTOWN -- The town's police officers are becoming increasingly frustrated by state lawmakers' lack of progress on a proposal to extend worker's compensation benefits to first responders affected by the murders of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The issue has become further complicated, one legislator said, because unions representing firefighters and teachers as well as some other first responders also want to be covered.

Several police union members expressed their dismay at a meeting Wednesday evening, said Eric Brown, who represents Council 15 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

"The longer it goes, the more anxious people get," Brown said. "There is not a lot of faith in politicians in general, and there is a sense they are dragging their feet."

Within a few weeks of the Dec. 14 shootings, legislation was introduced in the General Assembly that would have provided benefits to all first responders, paid or volunteer, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from exposure to events during the performance of their duties. Currently, only police officers unable to work after facing serious injury or deadly force from another person are eligible for those benefits.

But the bill, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, the co-chairman of the Public Safety and Security Committee, has run into a series of obstacles.

It has been referred to another legislative committee, which is expected to make extensive revisions before it comes up for a vote.

"It's become more complicated than just going forward with a simple bill," Dargan said.

One problem is that worker's compensation is basically an insurance policy and can't be made retroactive, meaning that even if the law was changed first responders traumatized by the Newtown tragedy wouldn't receive payments.

But also, Dargan noted, representative of several other groups, including those involved in the Sandy Hook shooting and others who may respond to future incidents, wanted to make sure their members would be covered.

Among them were the Connecticut State Police troopers and supervisors unions, volunteer and uniformed fire services, and teachers, including the Newtown Federation of Teachers.

Although volunteer firefighters don't receive compensation from the towns where they serve, PTSD could prevent them from working at their regular jobs, Dargan said.

"It really has an impact on more than one group, so it gets sticky," said Rep. Jan Giegler, R-Danbury, a member of the public safety committee.

The proposal also is opposed by groups like the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and the Council of Small Towns, which are concerned about its fiscal impact.

Newtown police union officials have said about a dozen officers were affected by the shooting, including six who were among the first responders at the school.

So far, one officer hasn't returned to work, but others have yet to feel the full impact of the what they saw and experienced, Brown said.

The union and the town have reached an agreement that will give officers partial pay supplemented by their remaining sick time if they can't work, Brown said.

"But funding is limited, and the time is approaching when more will need it," Brown said. "They've been running on adrenaline. We're six weeks out and the enormity is staring to hit them."

Meanwhile, he said, "People are staring to wonder whether they are going to be able to pay the mortgage or pay the tuition bill."

Because the issue is one involving labor, the bill has been referred to the Labor and Public Employees Committee, but legislators have yet to consider it, Giegler said.

"Nobody says they don't deserve it. It's just a matter of how it will be handled," she said.

"We need to do something for these individuals," Dargan said. "We may end up doing something specific to Newtown."

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