Workers on the Frontline of COVID-19 Deserve the Protection of Workers’ Compensation

Many of us across the country are feeling the pain of the spreading Coronavirus by being isolated in our homes, unable to resume our normal lives and the freedom of movement normally associated that normalcy. However, many of these isolated people are still able to carry on their jobs by working from home, in relative safety.

Millions of other workers do not have the relative luxury of being able to work from home. Instead, they have to be out meeting with the public or with coworkers, potentially exposing themselves to the often-deadly virus. Grocery store workers, food delivery persons, postal workers, farm workers, auto repair shop workers, correction officers, transit workers, workers in pharmacies, gas stations, food production plants and banks and people in many, many other occupations, must continue to put themselves at risk so that the rest of us may continue to get the goods and services that we depend on.  

Of all the frontline workers, none place themselves in harm’s way quite like the brave health care workers who battle the virus every day trying to keep the sick alive.  As with the heroic New York City firefighters who ran up the stairs of the Twin Towers as the buildings burned, health care workers across this great country go to work every day, knowing that they themselves could be sickened by the very illness for which they are treating their patients. Often working without proper personal protective equipment that is essential to prevent infection, these amazing workers do their duty to help the sick and the dying. Ambulance workers, firefighters, police officers, EMTs, doctors, nurses, CNAs, respiratory therapists, housekeepers and orderlies are getting sick and many are dying. 

With all of that happening, it is not entirely clear whether these workers will even be covered by workers’ compensation insurance. In many states, even though it might appear obvious that the virus was contracted in the workplace, actual proof might be required before compensability can be established. With the widespread nature of the virus, particularly in the hardest hit states such as New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Washington, this may prove to be impossible. Even if the standard of proof in a particular state is relatively relaxed, such as, is it more likely than not that the virus was contracted in the workplace, the presentation of such proof may be expensive and time-consuming. 

Although the hope with the virus is that those who are sickened will recover quickly and completely, it is entirely possible that there will be debilitating and longstanding health problems associated with the virus. Although the primary symptom of the disease was thought to be respiratory distress, recent reports from emergency rooms and intensive care units is that the virus is also causing blood clots which in turn are causing problems with other internal organs such as the kidneys, liver, heart and even the brain. Obviously, with those kinds of serious health effects, it is likely that many who contract the virus will be out of work for lengthy periods of time, as they recover.  Even if the physical effects are limited to the respiratory system, if those symptoms are serious enough to require intubation and the use of a respirator, once off the respirator, such patients often have a very long and sometimes unsuccessful recovery. Those patients will also likely be out of work for lengthy periods of time and in need of the quick and easy providing of workers’ compensation benefits.

The worst-case scenario obviously for many of these workers is that they won’t survive.  Although the death rate of those who become infected by the virus is not yet defined because of sparse testing, it appears that it may be as high as 3 %. Compounding the human tragedy of all these deaths is that many families of our medical professionals will be left without their principal source of income. In such circumstances, death benefits have to be quickly and easily provided.

There are some indications across the country that the critical issue of workers’ compensation benefits for virus infected workers may soon be addressed. In New York State, the New York Workers’ Compensation Alliance called on the legislature to guarantee workers’ compensation to include COVID-19 workplace exposure for all workers. Legislation in pending in New Jersey that would create a presumption of compensability for essential workers, such as those who work in restaurants, grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, and banks, should they get sick. Therefore, if an essential worker who interacts with the public contracts Coronavirus, it would be presumed that they caught the virus at work, thereby making them eligible to receive to workers’ compensation benefits. This law is anticipated to be retroactive to March 9. 2020. In California, there is a move afoot to go a step farther. The state’s largest workers’ compensation insurance carrier, the State Compensation Insurance Fund, announced that it will pay COVID-19 medical costs and income losses for employees at essential businesses that it covers, whether they contracted the illness at work or not. California started a trend by being the first state to implement stay at home orders and perhaps they will start a trend by being the first state to readily provide workers’ compensation benefits for COVID-19 infected workers. In the rapidly changing world brought about by the virus, there is reason to hope that this will soon happen.  These workers without any doubt, deserve those benefits.

If you’re having issues with a workers compensation claim, don’t wait to consult with a workers compensation lawyer in Buffalo, NY. Call a law office today.

Thanks to Hurwitz, Whitcher & Molloy for their insight into workers compensation and COVID-19.