The question of why coverage of so-called “mental-mental” injuries, or work injuries that do not involve a physical injury, is generally limited to first responders is a question that is increasingly vexing attorneys for injured workers and commentators on workers compensation — and workers.
The answer boils down to politics.
From a logical and moral point of view there is no reason why a convenience store clerk and a police officer shouldn’t be able to collect workers’ compensation for purely mental injuries from exposure to violent crime.
Legally that moral and logical sentiment is often expressed as an argument that such distinctions violate equal protection under state and federal constitutions. Advocates for injured workers have had some success in striking down so-called workers compensation reforms on equal protection grounds.
But while equal protection arguments can be useful in restoring rights to workers compensation, they are less helpful in creating new rights such as compensation for mental injuries. When addressing whether a law is constitutional, appellate courts usually decide first on what level of scrutiny to apply. The less stringent the scrutiny, the more likely the court will find the law to be constitutional.
Health and safety laws like workers compensation are generally afforded rational basis scrutiny by appellate courts. That means courts will generally uphold the constitutionality of those laws. That deferential level of scrutiny emerged out of the New Deal era as a way to uphold the constitutionality of laws relating to social welfare. But in the modern era rational basis scrutiny is often used to argue that the protections of laws like workers compensation shouldn’t be expanded by courts in a way not intended by a legislature.
In Nebraska it was the legislature that created compensation for mental-mental injuries for first responders and expanded that protection to prison guards and Department of Health and Human Services employees in contact with high risk indviduals. So ultimately providing protection for purely mental injuries to all workers — not just first responders — will be a political issue.