A city office assistant was on the way to the restroom when she saw a man shoot three people dead about 50 paces ahead.
She yanked out her earbuds. The country music she had been listening to was supplanted with pops and screams and the panicked whisper of her supervisor pleading for her to hide with her.
Before the shooter noticed, she followed her supervisor behind the file cabinets. From there she watched as he injured two more coworkers. She quieted her own cries and thought of her children.
The employee, one of hundreds who worked in a municipal building rampaged by an armed utilities engineer in May, now takes up to four medications to deal with her anxiety and depression. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, she was on medical leave following the mass shooting that left 12 people and the gunman dead. She goes to a therapist to help cope with her symptoms.
“It has definitely, definitely changed me,” said the woman, who asked not to be named because she is still employed by the city and seeking workers’ compensation for her treatment. “Sometimes I don’t even want to leave my house because I don’t feel safe.”
Five months later, 450 city employees have filed for workers’ compensation benefits related to the shooting. The mountain of claims represents the immense psychological and emotional toll the attack has had on the staff. Given that only four survivors were reported wounded, the vast majority of claims are for mental health reasons.
The cases show how such violence causes a cascade of devastation—and the difficult journey many of the people who keep the city running face as they try to recover.
At the opening last month of the VB Strong Center, a new counseling office for the community funded through a federal grant, Mayor Bobby Dyer spoke of the city’s obligation to care for those suffering.
“A great many more were traumatized, including city employees, family members, chaplains, first responders, and people who deliver emergency medical services by ambulance, by helicopter,” he said.
“We assure that our city, our city council, the people of Virginia Beach, are committed to supporting all the victims in perpetuity. We will never forget. We will never abandon you.”
Workers’ compensation is a form of insurance that provides lost wages and medical coverage to employees who are injured in the course of their jobs. In Virginia, workers can’t sue their employer for negligence.
Jeffrey Rodarmel, risk management administrator for the city, said the volume of claims that came from the shooting is on par with the amount the city normally receives over a period of three months.
But the tremendous load won’t cost as much to Virginia Beach as one might think.
The city, which has been self-insured since 1976, is usually on the hook for up to $1.25 million per injury before its excess workers’ compensation insurance policy kicks in.
In this case, Safety National, the insurer that would normally cover city worker injuries above that amount, is recognizing all claims from the shooting as a single event. That means Virginia Beach will pay the $1.25 million deductible just once—a break considering if any claim is accepted, the city is responsible for that employee’s medical treatment for the injury for life.
Immediately after the shooting, city officials said they would go out of their way to ensure the wounded victims wouldn’t have to pay a dollar. In an interview with WVEC in June, city spokeswoman Julie Hill said Virginia Beach made special arrangements with the hospital to have bills sent directly to the workers’ compensation adjusters so that families wouldn’t have to see them.
But how the city is handling the claims for mental health injuries is less transparent to the public.
Officials would not say how many claims there were for physical versus psychological injuries or how many had been accepted for benefits from each category. The city also wouldn’t say the amount it has paid so far. Hill said such questions would not be answered unless they were submitted as a Freedom of Information Act records request so that the city could develop a cost estimate for answering them.
“It’s a very small percentage of clients that have been denied,” Rodarmel said, without providing the numbers.
On the afternoon of the shooting May 31, police eventually came to the office assistant’s floor to escort survivors outside.
It felt like an eternity, she remembers, but maybe it was only a half hour.
At the time, officers didn’t know if there were other shooters. She believed the man with the .45-caliber handgun—someone she occasionally saw when she went to the vending machine downstairs—was still in the building. She could hear police yelling at him and their canines barking on the floor beneath.
The officers told the staff to keep their heads down. She and three others crouched as they inched their way toward the stairs.
They had to go around bodies.
“I ended up looking,” she said.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, a long-term condition caused by life-threatening events, has trademarks: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, sleep disturbances and jumpiness.
Its sufferers often describe replaying memories—images they wish they could unsee.
“Horrible, horrible nightmares,” said Joe Miller, a Virginia Beach-based lawyer, who has represented clients with PTSD. “You’re waking up, and you have just re-experienced the accident. You’re seeing people shooting, you’re seeing monsters. You see God-knows-what. You’re seeing the scene all over again, as if it just now happened.”
The National Center for PTSD estimates 28 percent of people who have witnessed a mass shooting will develop the disorder.
Its difference from acute stress disorder is how long it lasts. ASD has the same sort of symptoms but occurs immediately after the triggering event. To be diagnosed with PTSD, a person has to be experiencing those feelings for at least a month.
Some personal injury lawyers say it’s hard to get workers’ compensation for PTSD in Virginia. Employers—or their insurers—may try to create doubt as to whether the psychiatric condition happened because of a work incident or other factors in an employee’s personal life.
It’s generally easier for workers to win benefits for a mental injury if they also have suffered a physical one. But the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission, a state agency that reviews claims through hearings and mediation, did side with a worker who had only a psychological injury in 2017.
In that case, a Gentiva Health Services nurse who provided home care said she developed PTSD after shielding her disabled patient with her own body rather than seeking refuge in the basement during a tornado. The company originally denied her claim, saying her job didn’t require her to stay and protect the patient, but the commission disagreed.
When asked if the city is covering PTSD from the shooting with workers’ compensation benefits, Rodarmel would not elaborate but said, “On some level, yes.”
Despite being exposed to violence and severe accident scenes through their jobs, police and firefighters have difficulty getting workers’ compensation for PTSD in Virginia.
Courts consider public safety workers to be trained to deal with those situations.
The average expected cost for each of those claims was just under $200,000.
Brian Luciano, president of the Virginia Beach Police Benevolent Association, said the union wants the state to recognize that first responders can have the disorder, and sometimes it comes after several work-related experiences over time.
“It could take a decade before it shows up,” he said.
With mass shootings becoming more prevalent, lawmakers in other states are loosening restrictions on workers’ compensation policies for PTSD specifically for their police, firefighters and paramedics. After a high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead, Florida adopted a law that would provide disability benefits and medical coverage for those who suffered after witnessing certain traumatic events.
California, Connecticut, Colorado, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, Texas and Vermont have recently enacted provisions to their workers’ compensation policies as well.
A similar bill was proposed this year in Virginia—before the Virginia Beach mass shooting—but didn’t pass. Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, said he sponsored it because of his experience in the fire service. Local governments that have to pay the premiums are the staunchest opponents, he said.
McPike plans to reintroduce the bill in the next General Assembly session.
“There’s got to be something that recognizes the amount of things that people have seen,” he said.
As usual, Corvel, a company that processes Virginia Beach’s workers’ compensation claims, is providing the city with advice on whether to accept or deny them.
Safety National, which will pay for the approved claims after the city spends $1.25 million, is also making recommendations.
All of the cases go through the city’s risk management office after both companies have completed their investigations. When asked if Rodarmel has the power to overturn a Safety National decision, he said he “has a review” as part of the process.
Max Gonano, president of the Virginia Beach Professional Fire Fighters, said when it comes to workers’ compensation, the choice to provide benefits is always the city’s.
“The city is the party,” he said. “They could decide to cover whatever they want.”
The elephant in the room is how the spike in claims will impact the city’s insurance premium.
At a City Council work session in September, Rodarmel said he was concerned about the upcoming contract renewal with Safety National, and that he expects the cost to rise perhaps 13 percent.
Last year when the contract was put out to bid, just two companies gave Virginia Beach a quote. One was four times more than Safety National’s, Rodarmel said.
“We can’t willy-nilly accept or deny claims just because we want to," he said in a later interview, “because ultimately if a claim does reach (Safety National’s) self-insured retention, and we accept a claim without good rationale from a legal perspective, they very well may deny that claim, and we’ll be on the hook.”
Or worse, Rodarmel added: Safety National could “drop us.”
When asked if that risk would make the city more conservative about accepting claims in the future, city spokeswoman Hill said no.
“One thing doesn’t have anything to do with the other,” she said.
The city office assistant no longer allows her son to make guns out of his Lego blocks.
She has stopped playing Call of Duty, a first-person shooter video game she used to enjoy.
If a door slams, she’s the one that rattles.
Crowded public spaces now seem full of people with questionable intentions.
When she finally returned to work, the city gave her a new assignment. At first she wasn’t convinced Virginia Beach was doing enough to help employees struggling with mental health issues.
But she believes the city has gradually stepped up its efforts. The VB Strong Center has given her a place to go for group counseling, and she was relieved to find tighter security at work.
There are little gestures, too. One day there was a petting zoo, she said.
Following the closure of Building 2, the site of the shooting, the city had to cram hundreds of employees into new workspaces. The witnesses to the massacre are scattered.
She now works in an office without the colleagues who went through what she did.
That could make anyone feel isolated.
“I wonder about my coworkers, if anything has happened to them,” she said. “Just wondering if they’re, you know, safe.”
How to get help:
VB Strong Center 24/7 crisis hotline: 757-507-7200
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255