Sept. 11 was tragic for the victims who died at ground zero after the attacks on the World Trade Center. But, the lasting effects of the dust and particulates that filled the air after the collapse of the towers have caused ongoing health issues for numerous other victims: first responders who were not killed in the initial collapse of the buildings.
Fortunately, the federal government came to the aid of these first responders by enacting the James Zadroga Act, which provides free testing and treatment for first responders of the 9/11 attacks. However, had this act not been enacted, how would these workers, who have developed health problems from working at ground zero, have been treated under the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Act?
First, the ailments developed by the first responders would be treated as occupational diseases under Nebraska law. If the disease or ailment of the first responder is shown to be a result of the exposure while working at ground zero, the treatment and indemnity would be covered like any other Nebraska Workers’ Compensation claim.
If the first responder died as a result of the occupational disease, under Nebraska law, the surviving spouse would be entitled to death benefits under the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Act.
The biggest gap in workers’ compensation coverage under Nebraska law for occupational diseases occurs when the injured worker (or in this case, the first responder) does not develop symptoms or the disease until later in life. In a situation like that, if the occupational disease first manifests (or becomes an injury) after the injured worker has retired for unrelated reasons, the injured worker would be left without indemnity benefits. In other words, the injured worker could get no workers’ compensation money if he or she was retired when the disease showed up. Further, if the injured worker dies as a result of the occupational disease, but is retired at the time the disease becomes an injury, his or her surviving spouse would not be entitled to any money either. See Olivotto v. DeMarco Bros. Co., 273 Neb. 672 (2007): the widow whose husband died from asbestos exposure was not entitled to indemnity because her husband had been retired for 23 years when mesothelioma manifested.
Thus, if 9/11 happened in Nebraska, first responders who develop an occupational disease later in life might not be fully covered under workers’ compensation laws without some sort further government intervention like the James Zadroga Act.