Cities push for PTSD bill; cops, law firm say it wouldn’t help workers

By: - March 10, 2022 6:00 am

The building that held Town Talk Diner with the recognizable retro sign was reduced to rubble in the riots following the police killing of George Floyd. Photo from the complaint.

Cities need help dealing with the wave of cops leaving the field by getting disability pensions due to post-traumatic stress disorder — at an average age of 42 — since George Floyd’s killing, their representatives told lawmakers Tuesday.

They support a bill introduced at the state Legislature Monday that would require cops and firefighters to get treatment for PTSD in order to get workers’ compensation benefits or apply for disability pensions.   

A former cop, a union representative and partner at a Minneapolis law firm that represents most of the cops getting those pensions said the bill would only hurt police more.

HF4026 would require emergency responders to complete 32 weeks of PTSD treatment as part of the workers’ compensation process and get a decision on benefits before applying for disability pensions with the state.

The legislation aims to stem the deluge of cops retiring early due to PTSD. The number of police officers and firefighters applying for disability benefits from the state retirement fund shot up after the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020.

The Minnesota Public Employees Retirement Association received 118 disability benefit applications in 2019; 241 in 2020 and 307 in 2021. Most of those applicants were police officers, and about 80% said they were disabled by PTSD.

Once a 2019 workers’ comp law went into effect, PTSD claims by first responders were presumed to be work-related. 

Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, who authored the bill introduced this week, said something needs to be done this session because the state is facing a PTSD crisis among public safety workers. The bill is supported by the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, League of Minnesota Cities and Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association.

Long said the bill puts treatment first, because PTSD is a treatable condition for most people.

Nisswa City Administrator Jenny Max, who is second vice president for the League, said even tiny Nisswa is seeing longtime officers apply for “duty disability retirements” — which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. One claim, for example, cost more than $350,000 over 24 years, which would require a 14% property tax levy increase for taxpayers in the town of less than 2,000 residents.

But lawmakers also heard from Chris Steward, a retired Minneapolis sergeant who spent most of his career working in north Minneapolis. After 14 years on the force, he was diagnosed with PTSD in June 2020 after riots engulfed the city. He testified that he loved his job but had to leave after he became a threat to himself and others.

“I’ve seen the worst of mankind and what I can only describe as pure evil,” he told a House public safety committee, frequently choking up with emotion. “I’ve seen hundreds of dead bodies… the result of gang shootings, fatal car accidents, suicides.”

He has since founded a nonprofit called Heroes Helping Heroes to help cops cope with PTSD.

Steward said getting workers’ comp and disability pensions is “not a walk in the park.” He said it took 15 months for him to get workers’ comp — in part due to a federal discrimination lawsuit he filed against the city — and during that time had to use vacation and sick leave and lost his health insurance while his wife was pregnant.

But, he said, “I’d rather have eaten my own gun than work another day in that city.”

The bill would require that employers continue to provide health insurance benefits during the employee’s 32 weeks of required treatment.

Steward called the bill “horrific,” saying it would force officers to choose between their health and jobs, by making them apply for workers’ comp before disability pensions — a process that could take years. He noted the League has been fighting one claim for 3.5 years, even though the officer was approved by PERA for a disability retirement.

“They’re nothing more than an insurance company looking to save money,” he said of the League.

Lindsey Rowland, a partner at Meuser, Yackley and Rowland, a law firm that she said represents 75% of first responders who apply for workers’ compensation and disability pensions due to PTSD, said the bill won’t help people get treatment and return to work.

Rowland said the 2019 law change giving work-related presumption didn’t cause an increase in disability pension applications, contrary to what League officials have said. The law has been “effectively meaningless,” she said, since almost all workers’ comp claims are initially denied by the League, which provides workers’ comp to all but nine Minnesota cities.

Rowland attributed the increase in disability pensions to the events surrounding Floyd’s murder. Workers already apply for workers’ compensation before disability retirements, she said, and most go through months of treatment before their disability pensions are approved.

Ed Reynoso, director of political and legislative affairs for Teamsters Local 320, which represents about 1,400 cops and corrections officers, also opposed the bill, saying it gets between doctors and patients. He said the bill should first be vetted by the Workers’ Compensation Advisory Council, as with most workers’ comp bills.

D. Love, the mayor of Centerville and president of the League of Minnesota Cities, said the issue is paramount to cities, because the status quo is fiscally unsustainable. Some smaller cities may not be able to afford to provide public safety without a fix, he said. Love said the average age of those seeking disability pensions is 42, which he called “shocking.”

Lino Lakes Public Safety Director John Swenson, who has worked in the field for 33 years, said the system doesn’t allow people to get the treatment they need or keep them financially whole while getting help.

The committee chair, Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, said lawmakers would continue to work on the bill. Long said he’d continue working on it. 

Given the close relationship in recent years between Senate Republicans and police unions, passage may be difficult in the upper chamber. 

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.