Capitol Alert

‘These injuries can be healed.’ New law lets first responders seek workers’ comp for PTSD

California firefighters and first responders now have a stronger chance at earning workers’ compensation when they are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from job-related injuries.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office announced he signed Senate Bill 542 on Tuesday to create a rebuttable presumption that a worker’s mental health struggles are an occupational injury, which could qualify them for paid time off to recover.

“The job of firefighters and first responders can be very rewarding, but at the same time, extremely unpredictable,” Newsom said. “They can experience high-stress situations and traumatic incidents that can push them to the limit both physically and mentally, and we need to recognize and take those challenges head on.”

Newsom signed the law alongside two other bills that will provide mental health support to firefighters and peace officers. The second new law establishes standards for peer support programs. The third signing prohibits the outsourcing of local emergency dispatch services to for-profit agencies.

The new workers’ compensation law was supported by a network of police, firefighter and mental health unions and advocates across California. The California Association of Highway Patrolmen and California Professional Firefighters were co-sponsors of the bill.

The coalition argued that amid record-breaking and deadly wildfire seasons and a new mass shooting reality, first responders need time to care for their work-related mental health concerns.

“Every day, we ask firefighters and law enforcement officers to run into flames and gunfire — but too often, when the weight of these traumas becomes too much for these heroes to bear, we turn a blind eye to their struggles,” said state Sen. Henry Stern, the bill’s author and a Democrat from Canoga Park. “Today, California is making clear that post-traumatic stress is not a disorder to be stigmatized. These injuries can be healed.”

Suicides among the groups are now outpacing on-duty deaths, according to the Ruderman Family Foundation, a philanthropic organization that works on disability inclusion.

“In 2017, there were at least 103 firefighter suicides and 140 police officer suicides,” a foundation report noted. “In contrast, 93 firefighters and 129 police officers died in the line of duty.”

Rebuttable presumptions for work-related injuries already include physical ailments like heart disease, cancer and hernias. Before Newsom signed SB 542, California’s law limited psychiatric injury compensation to those that could prove the injury was at least 50 percent related to their job.

A handful of groups opposed the legislation, citing costs associated with a potential increase in workers’ compensation claims. The California Coalition on Workers’ Compensation led the opposition to SB 542, writing in a letter urging Newsom to veto the measure that local governments will face unknown price tags and that mental health claims are not “inappropriately denied.”

“Not only is there a lack of evidence that a presumption is needed, but there is also a lack of information about the cost associated with the changes,” the groups said. “We believe the current workers’ compensation system strikes the appropriate balance with respect to psychiatric injuries.”

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Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.
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