Connecticut lawmakers created a special charitable fund on Wednesday to help cover the mental health costs of first responders, educators and other workers traumatized by the Newtown school massacre.
Both chambers of the General Assembly voted unanimously in favor of the bill, crafted by legislative leaders after meeting with Newtown police officers and other first responders who spoke of co-workers suffering from psychological trauma. Some of those workers felt they had to return to their jobs because traditional workers compensation does not cover most people for exclusively mental health issues.
"We can only imagine for a few seconds what they went through in doing their jobs," said Senate President Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn. "This legislation is about helping them through this incredibly difficult period."
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, whose district includes Newtown, said five members of the Newtown Police Department currently are on leave because of the shooting, which left 20 first-graders and six educators dead. He said others will likely need help as time goes on because post-traumatic stress disorder and other illnesses may not become evident until months or years after the event.
"In the aftermath, we know how much this hurts them," McKinney said. "It's not easy to step forward and say, `We need help, we're hurting.' And that's why we need to do it for them."
The Sandy Hook Workers Assistance Program will be privately funded and administered by the Office of Victim Services within the state's Judicial Branch.
Melodie Peters, president of the Connecticut branch of the American Federation of Teachers, said all the Sandy Hook teachers have returned to work. She said 11 people had applied for workers compensation coverage but were rejected. Peters said she worries about those employees once the school year is finished and they have time to realize what has happened.
"Their focus is still on the children right now and trying to get back to a normalcy," she said.
AFT arranged to have teachers from the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado visit with the Newtown teachers. Peters said those teachers spoke of how it took about five years get past the trauma they experienced.
AFT also represents the custodians and secretaries at the school, as well as the medical examiners who conducted autopsies on the Sandy Hook victims. Those workers' expenses would also be covered by the fund, which is expected to be fully up and running on April 1.
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said several hundred thousand dollars has already been pledged to the fund by corporations, including wrestling company WWE, Northeast Utilities, AT&T, Dominion Resources and health care products-maker Covidien.
Also the Connecticut Trial Lawyers and the Connecticut Bar Association have contributed.
The New England Cable Television Association has agreed to promote the initiative through public service announcements. Members of the public can contribute to the new account through various charities, including The United Way of Western Connecticut.
Under the bill, eligible claimants can receive financial assistance for uncompensated leave from their job if mental or emotional impairment has caused a total or partial disability that prevents them from working. They can also receive financial help for related medical expenses not covered by their own health insurance. The bill limits each claim to up to 52 weeks of benefits.
Meanwhile, there is a separate bill moving through the legislative process that would require Connecticut's worker's compensation system to cover treatment costs for mental illnesses stemming from future workplace traumas.