Business and Labor

Compensation for certain mental injuries considered

A bill heard by the Business and Labor Committee Feb. 13 would expand workers’ compensation coverage for mental injuries and illnesses to include non-physical injury cases resulting from workplace violence.

Sen. Carol Blood
Sen. Carol Blood

Currently, only Nebraska first responders who experience a workplace mental injury or illness may qualify for workers’ compensation benefits without also experiencing a corresponding physical injury. LB5, introduced by Bellevue Sen. Carol Blood, would extend that provision to individuals diagnosed by a medical professional as having a mental injury or illness as a result of workplace violence.

Under the bill, workplace violence is defined as a shooting, hostage situation, act of terrorism or similar act of violence.

Blood said she brought the bill forward in the aftermath of a shooting that killed two workers at a Bellevue Sonic Drive-In in November 2020. Witnesses to the shooting didn’t qualify for financial support for the post-traumatic stress disorder they experienced because they did not have a physical injury, she said, despite the fact that the event was traumatic and life-altering.

“Many people associate this disorder with military veterans. PTSD is in fact very common in military populations and many that have been diagnosed were not personally injured, but witnessed [a violent incident],” Blood said. “Simply witnessing an event like a car accident can trigger PTSD symptoms. Imagine witnessing a massacre like the one at Sonic.”

Nine other states provide workers’ compensation coverage for stand-alone mental injury or PTSD, Blood said, and Nebraska should join them.

Trevor Towey, president of the Omaha Professional Firefighters Association, spoke in support of the bill. He said firefighters who experience mental injury from witnessing or experiencing traumatic events can receive workers’ compensation — a right that should be afforded to the general public for individuals who experience trauma from workplace violence.

“It’s my opinion that every worker — if they sustain an injury, whether a mental injury from workplace violence, or a physical injury — should be compensated and afforded the rights and protections that the work comp courts allow,” Towey said.

Bellevue Police Chief Ken Clary, speaking on behalf of the city of Bellevue and the Bellevue Police Department, also spoke in support. Both physical and mental injuries resulting from workplace violence can be life-altering, he said, but Nebraska currently does not recognize those stand-alone mental injuries for workers’ compensation.

“Survivors who face [mental] injuries and are unable to return to work should not be abandoned by the system that is set up to protect injured workers, especially as a result of some of the most dramatic events that could possibly occur in a workplace,” Clary said.

Justin Hubly, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, testified in favor of LB5. Everyone deserves to go to work and feel safe, he said, however public servants sometimes end up in dangerous situations that they never asked to be put in.

“I want to make sure our members and members of the public are protected and have recourse in the courts should they suffer a mental illness or injury that is the result of that direct workplace violence,” Hubly said.

In opposition to the bill was Dallas Jones, representing Nebraskans for Workers’ Compensation Equity and Fairness, American Property Casualty Insurance Association, Nebraska State Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

The burden of paying workers’ compensation in cases of workplace violence shouldn’t fall solely on a private employer who didn’t know the event was coming and would have done anything to stop it, he said.

Jones also expressed concern that LB5 as written does not require that an individual be on the premises during an instance of workplace violence in order to qualify for workers’ compensation. In fact, he said, the bill does not require that an individual witness the event to potentially receive a payout.

“The language is open to anybody that is off premises — not at work — who heard about it and had a mental reaction to it,” he said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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