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Published January 11, 2011, 04:37 PM

ND Violent Crime Victims Could Claim Workers' Comp

Legislation that would provide limited workers' compensation benefits for someone who is a victim of violent crime on the job drew complaints Tuesday that it was both paltry and too expensive.

By: Dale Wetzel, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Legislation that would provide limited workers' compensation benefits for someone who is a victim of violent crime on the job drew complaints Tuesday that it was both paltry and too expensive.

The North Dakota Senate's Industry, Business and Labor Committee held a hearing on the legislation. The bill was proposed by the state's Workforce Safety and Insurance agency after it rejected the benefits claim of a bank teller who said she was too shaken to return to work after a May 2009 robbery of the bank where she worked in Gilby, a rural community in Grand Forks County.

Bryan Klipfel, the agency's director, told the committee that North Dakota law normally does not allow workers to claim compensation for mental stress on the job, unless it is accompanied by a physical injury.

Klipfel said the legislation was narrowly drawn. Only employees who were the targets of violent crimes, including murder, rape and aggravated assault, would be eligible for benefits for a stress injury. Mental problems that predated the attack would not be eligible for treatment. Benefits would last for six months or until $15,000 in benefits had been provided, whichever came first.

The legislation is not retroactive, and thus would not affect the bank teller's case. Sen. Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden, the committee's chairman, said making the bill retroactive would "open up a huge can of worms . I'm assuming that we're looking forward, and hoping that we don't have this again."

Klipfel said other states' workers' compensation laws deal with mental injuries in the workplace in a variety of ways. Some do not allow any claims based only on mental stress, he said.

"Mental claims are challenging to adjudicate and difficult to medically manage," Klipfel said. "They cannot be easily identified or . treated like a broken leg, or a torn rotator cuff."

David Boeck, an attorney for the Protection and Advocacy Project, and Veronica Zietz, director of The Arc of Bismarck, said the proffered benefits would probably not be sufficient for treatment of traumatic stress. The two organizations represent people with disabilities.

Boeck said the legislation's six-month limit for benefits "is, basically, no coverage" for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Post-traumatic stress might begin right away, but it might not occur for some time, and it might take a very long time to really advance toward recovery," Boeck said.

Zietz said employees who were witnesses, rather than targets, of a violent crime should also be eligible for benefits. "Whether an employee is the intended victim or not, that employee's mental health will likely be negatively impacted by a violent crime," she said.

Bill Shalhoob, a spokesman for the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, said it was unwise for WSI to begin paying workers' compensation benefits strictly for mental injuries on the job.

"Each individual reacts differently to (stress). As a result, benefits are unpredictable, leading to increased litigation and higher costs," Shalhoob said.

He also said lawmakers shouldn't push legislation based on a single incident.

"If the Legislature wants to draft, codify something, based on one incident, we should just have the whatever-her-name-is bill and give her some money," he said. "But we aren't."

The Industry, Business and Labor Committee will make a recommendation later on whether the full Senate should approve the bill.

The legislation is SB2093.

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