Minnesota State Patrol troopers wearing riot gear and holding wooden batons stand in front of buildings set ablaze during protests and riots on May 29, 2020. Photo by Tony Webster.
Minnesota lawmakers are considering action this session to stem the deluge of cops retiring early due to post-traumatic stress disorder.
The number of emergency responders retiring early due to disability shot up after the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020.
Roughly 90% of the disability retirement claims have been made by police officers — about one-third of them from Minneapolis — and about 80% said they have PTSD.
HF1234 would require cops and firefighters who apply for disability retirement benefits based on a psychological condition to complete up to 32 weeks of treatment with a mental health professional — reimbursed by the state public safety department — who would assess whether they’re able to return to their job. Public employers would also have to provide annual wellness training and an employee assistance or peer support program.
Similar legislation stalled last session. This bill has a better shot at passage, given law enforcement’s flagging political influence after the midterm election and the increasing strain the departures are putting on cities, counties and the state police and fire pension fund.
Unlike last year’s bill, this one doesn’t address workers’ compensation benefits. The League of Minnesota Cities has said the cost of the police exodus is fiscally unsustainable.
If two doctors say the worker can’t do their job due to PTSD, the state struggles to deny a disability claim. Almost 100% of claims are approved.
Lindsey Rowland, a partner at a law firm that represents many cops and firefighters who apply for workers’ compensation and disability pensions due to PTSD, said employees already go through months, sometimes years, of treatment before their disability pensions are approved.
Bradley Peterson, executive director of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, said the group doesn’t normally wade into labor issues, but cities are at a “critical point” after a wave of disability retirements.
“This is not just a Minneapolis issue, this is impacting cities all across the state,” he said during a January press briefing.
Public safety workers who retire early due to disability get at least 60% of their salary tax-free for five years or until they turn 55, when it converts to regular retirement. Cities must continue paying for their health insurance until they turn 65, when they’re eligible for Medicare.
“As these applications increase, cities are finding themselves in a position that is really difficult to sustain in terms of continuing to provide those benefits while also replacing that public safety employee,” Peterson said.
Waite Park City Administrator Shaunna Johnson said three of the city’s 22 police officers are out with disability claims. It would take years of costly litigation for the city to appeal or challenge the claims, which she estimates will cost the city $2.2 million over time.
“These employee payouts for us are unattainable and the system is extremely exploitable,” Johnson said.
The disability process needs to be reformed, she said, to avoid burdening communities while continuing to provide the benefit for people who need it.
In 2019, Minnesota was one of the first states to pass a law mandating that a first responder PTSD diagnosis is presumed to be job-related for workers’ comp claims.
Nearly a dozen states have introduced legislation this year to enact similar PTSD presumptions, according to the trade magazine Business Insurance.
League of Cities lobbyist Anne Finn said before enacting such laws, other states should learn from Minnesota’s experience.
“Having the presumption without other policies and funding related to injury prevention and treatment doesn’t work for employees, employers or taxpayers,” Finn said.
All but nine self-insured Minnesota cities get workers’ compensation coverage through the League.
Another bill, HF610, would provide a $1 million grant to a group called Heroes Helping Heroes to fund mental health treatment for police officers and first responders with mental health issues.
The nonprofit was founded by 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 founded the group to help cops cope with PTSD.
The bill was laid over for possible inclusion in a larger bill.
All the disability retirements have put a strain on the state police and fire retirement fund, increasing its liability by $73 million last year. PERA Executive Director Doug Anderson has said the police and fire plan is underfunded by about $1.7 billion due to poor investment returns last year. That’s not taking into account the surge in disability retirements, which could increase the unfunded liability by $40 million per year unless member or employer contributions are increased.
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