Evers signs compensation bill for emergency responders

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has signed a bipartisan bill that makes it easier for emergency responders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to file worker’s compensation claims.

Right now, police and firefighters can claim worker’s compensation for PTSD but they must prove the condition was caused by unusual stress compared to what their co-workers regularly experience. Under the bill, a police officer or firefighter needs only a diagnosis from a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist and the diagnosis doesn’t have to be based on the employee suffering greater stress than his or her co-workers.

The bill guarantees up to 32 weeks of compensation and allows responders to make only three such claims in his or her lifetime.

"It was very, very important, very meaningful to me," said Wisconsin Democratic Senate Leader, Sen. Janet Bewley, one of the bill’s co-sponsors. "This is a matter of fairness, justice and recognizing the humanity in everyone including the people who have the most stressful jobs of all."

Police and firefighters have been pushing for the changes for several years, saying it could help prevent employee suicides. The bill failed in the Senate during the last legislative session. This time the Senate, now under the control of new Republican Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, passed the measure unanimously in February. The Assembly passed it on a voice vote earlier this month.

"Law enforcement and firefighters diagnosed with PTSD as a result of their service to their communities have been virtually unable to qualify for workers compensation benefits," said Jim Palmer, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, made up of more than 10,000 law enforcement members.

Palmer said until now, officers were often confronted with running out of sick time or using vacation to take time for treatment.

"They have to make an untenable choice," Palmer said. "They have to decide either to go back to work, return to duty, in that they may not be fully well or they have to leave the profession entirely, this legislation signed into law today shows our officers deserve better than that."

Evers signed the bill at a Madison fire station. Democratic and Republican lawmakers who sponsored the bill attended the signing along with police and firefighters.

"Doing something right that will make it better and easier so they can do their jobs, so there won’t be a guy who is retiring at age 39 anymore, so they can get the help early as they need it," said former Wisconsin firefighter Steve Raclaw, who left the fire service to seek treatment.