By Jason Shultz, Esq.
Being a correctional officer is one of the most dangerous and stressful jobs in the world. Think about what these women and men do every day. They walk through prison gates; the doors are locked BEHIND them, and are asked to protect us from the most dangerous criminals in Maryland. They are not carrying firearms and are wearing very little protection. Correctional officers know the risk and despite that, show up every day for work and protect the public. In turn, the State of Maryland does not provide them with as many workers’ compensation protections as they could.
Correctional officers are on the front lines of public safety in Maryland. They stand side by side with police and fire to provide safety to the public. Yet the law does not afford them the same protections as police and fire. In Maryland, and throughout the country, the law recognizes that police officers and firefighters have a higher risk of developing hypertension and heart disease. This is a direct result of the high stress nature of being a police officer and firefighter. The law presumes that if a police officer or firefighter develops hypertension, it’s presumed to have been caused by the stress of their job. This is backed up by research. The presumption itself is vital because the workers’ compensation insurance company has the burden to prove that the hypertension was caused by something other than the stress of the job. In other workers’ compensation cases, the burden is on the injured worker to prove the injuries were caused by the accident or the in the case of an occupation disease, the disease was caused by the nature of the employment.
Why doesn’t the law provide correctional officers the same protection as police and fire? Think about what correctional officers face every day. The threat of assault is constant; they have to be on high alert from the moment they walk in the prison. Is being surrounded by violent criminals forty hours a week just as stressful as being a police officer and firefighter? And when you think about public safety, people often fail to consider that correctional officers are the last line of defense, and provide just as much safety to the public as police or fire. There have been bills introduced in the last two Legislative sessions to provide Maryland correctional officers the same protections as police and fire and neither has been enacted. Two sessions ago during the testimony before Senate, representatives from the workers’ compensation insurance industry actually testified that correctional officers do not protect the public, and that’s why legislators should vote down the bill!
Some jurisdictions in Maryland do recognized that correctional officers have the same increased risk of hypertension. Both Montgomery and Prince George's counties treat their correctional officers the same as their police and firefighters. If a Montgomery County or Prince George’s County correctional officer develops hypertension, the law presumes it’s caused by the stress of their employment and they are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, but if a correctional officer in a State of Maryland facility develops hypertension, they do not have the same protection. How can this be? The worst of the worst are housed in State of Maryland facilities. How can State of Maryland correctional officers not face the same, if not more stress, as a Prince Georges’ or Montgomery County correctional officers?
Despite this inherent unfairness, correctional officers throughout the state STILL have the right to file hypertension claims. Just because they don’t have the presumption does not mean they cannot fight for their rights. We are currently fighting for the rights of correctional officers who have hypertension despite the lack of a presumption bill, and we will continue to do so. If you do have a hypertension and are a correctional officer, make sure you protect your rights by filing a workers’ compensation claim. Don’t wait for the Legislature to protect your rights for you.
Jason Shultz, Esq.
Berman, Sobin, Gross, Feldman & Darby LLP