Health-care workers and emergency responders will benefit from rules eased in some states around workers’ compensation that will allow them to collect benefits if they can prove they caught Covid-19 on the job. Some say essential workers like grocery store employees and delivery workers also should qualify.
But employers need to be aware of the changing rules, and be prepared for the likely end result—skyrocketing premiums.
State workers’ compensation boards around the country are amending rules for benefits payouts to include health-care workers exposed to the virus and then quarantined.
Attorneys are keeping a close eye on the questions, such as who should be eligible to receive benefits, how does a worker prove they caught Covid-19 on the job, and how will an influx of successful claims affect businesses’ premiums to insurance carriers.
"If everybody who gets sick on the job is able to file a compensation claim and everyone is successful, it may bankrupt a company,” said Michael Duff, a workers’ compensation professor at the University of Wyoming.
Workers’ compensation is a state-mandated insurance program that provides pay to workers who are injured on the job—in return, the worker agrees not to sue their employer. Like unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation rules vary by state.
In early March, Washington’s Department of Labor & Industries announced that it "will provide benefits to these workers during the time they’re quarantined after being exposed to COVID-19 on the job.”
And on March 13, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s office announced that Kentucky Employers’ Mutual Insurance will "expand coverage benefits to include the quarantine period for first responders and medical personnel,” a news release stated.
Still, many states haven’t changed their policies, and experts say proving causation can be tough for workers.
Earlier this month, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration declared that coronavirus was a recordable injury—meaning an employer would have to notify the federal safety agency when a worker caught the disease at work—and issued guidance to that effect.
Safety attorneys said the guidance left confusion about how to prove whether a worker actually contracted the virus on the job, said Joshua Henderson, partner at Norton Rose Fulbright US LLP in California.
"At the moment, the question of causation is where there is a lot of uncertainty,” Henderson said. "Whether it was caused by a condition at work.”
Some lawyers and activists think grocery store workers and delivery drivers are eligible for workers’ comp benefits, since their employers deem them essential workers and they could be at higher risk of Covid-19 exposure based on their persistent contact with the public as the pandemic rages across the country.
Duff argues that there are scenarios where a worker could establish causation is by citing one’s essential employee status.
"If you’re required to come in and deemed essential employees, because you are by definition required to come into work during a pandemic, then I think the argument would be, ‘My risk of contracting this disease is by definition higher than the general public.’ What you’re basically saying is, ‘My workplace increases the risk of me contracting the disease’,” Duff said.
He said he believes many workers will qualify for claims, causing employer premiums to rise, and the pandemic exposes fissures in workers’ compensation rules and labor law as a whole.
"If I was in management, I’d figure out a strategy that is fair but won’t hasten my demise or subject me to extraordinary financial pressure,” Duff said. "I would be thinking about how I would responsibly contest claims in a way that doesn’t make me look like an ogre.”
Jeff Eddinger, regulatory business management specialist at the National Council on Compensation Insurance, told Bloomberg Law that no national data is available that can outline the impact of Covid-19 on premiums. Assuming there’s an influx of workers’ compensation claims from the health-care sector, "that would certainly cause some upward pressure on claim costs in the system, but then I would say on the other side of that, during this time where people are telecommuting and some industries shut down, that creates downward pressure because people aren’t working. Those two things could offset each other.”
Duff said employers should develop practices and policies that can reasonably contest claims, but "don’t unreasonably respond to workers because my customers aren’t going to feel good about it.”
Edward W. Guldi, a New York plaintiff’s workers’ comp attorney at The Perecman Firm, P.L.L.C., also said it’s not likely grocery or delivery drivers would be successful in worker’s comp claims.
"Nurses are going to get their claims, the hospital workers, too,” Guldi said. "The people who aren’t are grocery store workers, waiters, office workers and delivery drivers and basically everybody else who doesn’t qualify.”
He compared their position to the Sept. 11 firefighters and first responders in New York who initially were denied workers’ compensation. Later, the state legislature passed Article 8-A, which addressed the complications caused by the two-year statutory filing deadline, allowing those injured or sickened in rescue, recovery, and cleanup efforts access to compensation.
The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health—an organization of unions, worker centers, and activists—already has begun lobbying for sick workers to receive workers’ compensation in New York. A representative from the organization wasn’t available for comment.
John Ruser, president and CEO of the independent, nonprofit Workers Compensation Research Institute, said one way to ensure nonhealth-care workers are covered by workers’ compensation is through state legislation.
"In some cases, legislators passed a law that said certain conditions are presumed to be work-related, therefore all claims that come from a class of workers related to Covid-19 would be compensable. Legislators can pass that,” he said.
Guldi said maybe the New York State Assembly "will do the right thing for those who have this illness. I know when George Pataki was governor, it took unions and police unions and 9/11 widows and lobbying to make that happen.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Fatima Hussein in Washington at email@example.com