Medical workers and first responders at the front lines of Florida’s pandemic response are at a high risk of becoming infected by COVID-19. But their ability to successfully obtain workers’ compensation may depend on who pays them.
Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis issued a directive earlier this week ordering the Division of Risk Management to fulfill workers’ compensation claims for frontline employees who work for the state.
"If we’re going to ask our public servants to fight this pandemic on our behalf, they have to know we’ve got their backs if they get sick,” Patronis said in a statement.
Workers’ compensation is insurance that pays for medical bills and some of an injured worker’s lost wages during their injury, as well as rehabilitation in some cases. Employers pay into a workers’ compensation fund that benefits any workers who are injured on the job.
Frontline workers, Patronis’ directive said, include law enforcement officers, government-employed emergency medical technicians and paramedics, correctional officers, state employees in the health care field who directly interact with those infected with or tested for COVID-19, child safety investigators and Florida National Guard members who are mobilized in response to the pandemic.
It does not, however, include similar workers in the private sector.
"It’s a good first step,” said Glen Wieland, chair of the Florida Bar’s workers’ compensation division. "The next step is if the government was to come out and say, ‘If these (private sector) people working in the hospitals and dealing with these patients get it, they need to be covered.’”
As of Monday, the state’s Division of Risk Management recorded 36 workers’ compensation claims related to the coronavirus.
Florida is among a growing number of states to announce that some medical workers and first responders will be covered by workers’ compensation. Earlier this month, Washington announced that its frontline workers would be covered if they had to be quarantined because of COVID-19, and Kentucky’s Employers Mutual Insurance Co. debuted a similar policy.
But in Florida, private insurance companies dominate the workers’ compensation landscape for non-government employers. The state is not allowed to mandate that they cover claims such as those for COVID-19, according to the National Council on Compensation Insurance. The council sets rates for Florida’s workers’ compensation insurance.
"They can do things like say, ‘insurance companies, during this time you are not allowed to cancel coverage,'" said Jeff Eddinger, senior division executive for the council. "The same thing happens during hurricanes.”
Those private sector employees who do apply may face challenges.
According to Sarasota-based workers’ compensation lawyer Mark Ingram, workers will need to prove that they contracted the illness at work and that their work put them at an increased risk of contracting it.
"Whether or not it’s covered is going to depend on the circumstances of their individual situation,” Ingram said. "How do you prove you actually contracted it on the job?”
Workers who don’t fall under the traditional definition of
Family doctors, for example, may come into contact with COVID-19 patients if they direct patients to testing. But because family doctors often don’t do the testing themselves, they may have difficulty proving that their patient was positive for COVID-19 when they interacted with them.
"Hopefully there’s going to be a presumption,” Wieland said, that "if you’re a frontline worker, it’s presumed you got it from your work.”
Others, such as grocery workers and delivery drivers, may have an even less clear-cut claim for worker’s compensation despite their designation as essential workers.
"I think it’s going to depend on how much contact these people have" with those who were infected, Wieland said.