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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bill would allow death investigators in Washington to receive workers comp for PTSD

Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, proposes a bill allowing county coroners and medical examiners to qualify for workers compensation due to PTSD to the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee on Jan. 12, 2024, in Olympia, Washington.   (Lauren Rendahl / The Spokesman-Review)

County coroners and medical examiners assist with some of the most devastating cases, witnessing the aftermath of violent deaths – something the public seldom has to see.

Under current law, state employees are eligible for workers’ compensation from the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries if they are injured or suffer a disability resulting from their line of work. However, mental conditions caused by stress are ruled out and cannot fall under an occupational disease, meaning that most workers who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder don’t qualify for benefits.

There are exceptions carved out in state law to this rule: firefighters, law enforcement officers, public safety telecommunicators, like 911 operators and fire dispatchers, and direct care nurses can receive PTSD compensation only if certain conditions are met. They must also subject themselves to a psychological examination prior to their employment to rule out existing PTSD.

County coroners and medical examiners, however, are not included, yet they’re still considered part of the first response team when a sudden death or tragedy occurs, said Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia. He’s the prime sponsor of a bill hoping to allow compensation for personnel expressing claims of PTSD and proposed it to the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee on Friday.

“They will respond to infant deaths, deaths in the community where they live, seeing friends and family, being called out of their homes at all hours of the day,” Abbarno said. “And it has a substantial impact on them.”

Coroner and medical examiner offices conduct scene investigations, assist law enforcement and employ forensic pathologists who perform autopsies for all types of death, including suicide, homicide and violent, unusual or sudden deaths.

Their jobs are not done when they leave the scene. Medical examiners are then left with the sorrowful job of communicating and treating grieving family members.

“The goal of bills like this is to identify there are certain jobs and careers that have a higher level of this type of stress and traumatic experiences, and we want to make sure that those workers are able to continue to do their jobs in the right way,” Abbarno said.

Few people are interested in this line of work, putting pressure on rural community personnel to deal with death at a much higher rate. As of 2020, only six counties in Washington rely on medical examiners, 17 counties depend on elected coroners and the remaining 16 counties, notably the smallest ones, use prosecuting attorneys who split their time between the courtroom and death investigations.

“I’ve witnessed how daily exposure to traumatic events has created an alarming turnover rate among new investigators,” Robert Karinen, Snohomish County chief death investigator, testified. “Recently at the American Academy of Forensic Science, I sat in a meeting that said the average tenure for a new employee is only five years, and this is definitely consistent, from what I’ve seen.”

Karinen has over 23 years of experience in death investigation. His office stands side by side with law enforcement witnessing the same tragic events, but people in death investigation don’t receive the same early retirement benefits as fire and law personnel, Karinen said. Instead, they undergo an additional 12 years of stress before retirement.

In the last five years, the Kitsap County Medical Examiner’s Office had three employees leave due to PTSD issues, taking 20 years of valuable experience with them, said Jeff Wallis, the former Kitsap County coroner.

Yakima County Coroner Jim Curtice said his office is short-staffed. Even the loss of one person could cause detrimental effects to the types of service they provide.

Last year, Curtice suffered a mental health crisis and decided to receive help from Deer Hollow, a PTSD treatment program for first responders, after avoiding it in fear of what others might think.

“I have been diagnosed with PTSD, and I have received treatment, inpatient treatment, for PTSD and without that treatment, I would not be here today serving in the capacity that I do,” Curtis said.

A couple of people testified in opposition to the bill due to the increased costs.

Patrick Conner, representing the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said the cost estimate for PTSD claims has risen to almost $650,000.

“Washington’s workers and their employers are already facing a 5% increase in workers compensation costs compared to last year,” Conner said. “Continuing to add presumptive occupational disease claims like this to the state fund is simply burdening our workers and our employers in future years with even higher costs.”

Before the testimony, Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, didn’t realize how vulnerable coroners and medical examiners were to PTSD, he told The Spokesman-Review.

Smaller communities have a much smaller staff, so the trauma that would normally aggregate onto 10 or 15 employees instead falls onto just one or two, Ormsby said.

The bill is awaiting a session in the House Labor and Workforce Committee next Friday.