- Understanding COVID-19 and Workers’ Compensation
- What Does Workers’ Compensation Cover?
- How Has COVID-19 Changed Workers’ Compensation?
- Workers’ Compensation and Essential Workers
- Employer Responsibilities During COVID-19
- Filing a Workers’ Compensation Claim and Pursuing Legal Action
- Other Immediate Options for Coronavirus Relief
The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered the work environment for employers and employees alike. Some of these changes are long-term changes to the American workforce in general, such as an accelerated transition into remote operations. Other shifts include more temporary measures to protect workers, such as the implementation of workers’ compensation specific to COVID-19 infection.
The latter change is vital for the maintenance of community functioning and wellbeing, as infected workers pose a health risk to those around them, and sweeping wage losses could devastate economic prosperity. It’s more important than ever to understand how workers’ compensation functions, especially for high-risk employees such as frontline health workers.
Workers’ compensation insurance is meant to reimburse employees for injury or illness sustained in direct relation to their work duties. It also can be used to replace wages lost during recovery, and/or provide temporary disability benefits for sustained injury or illness. It can even reimburse family members in the event of the employee’s death. Workers’ compensation benefits related to COVID-19 are being expanded in many areas of the workforce, with some expansion initiatives being done on a voluntary basis by the companies themselves, and others being mandated by state law. In the latter case, these laws are assuming that COVID-19 infection is an inherent risk of work, especially in particular fields, such as healthcare.
Workers’ compensation laws vary from state to state, but often implement some parameters regarding what types of businesses must have workers’ compensation insurance available to employees. These parameters often take into consideration factors such as industry and the number of employees within the organization.
Laws regarding workers’ compensation coverage do apply to remote employees, and remote workforces may also independently choose to utilize workers’ compensation. In order to effectively do this, remote or hybrid organizations must implement concrete work expectations regarding your work area, travel during work hours, or other parameters related to workers’ health and safety. In doing so, it is easier to determine whether or not the injury or illness was sustained directly in relation to their occupation.
Remote workers report injury or illness that may be covered under workers’ compensation insurance the same way that any employee does. They must notify their employer about the details of the injury, as well as how and when it occurred.
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many necessary changes for workers’ compensation insurance. Many of these policy changes to workers’ compensation have occurred at the state level.
Eight states have extended workers’ compensation through legislative powers to cover COVID-19 infection, based on a presumption of COVID-19 being a work-related health risk. Five of these states — Alaska, Minnesota, Utah, Vermont, and Wisconsin — only extend this coverage to healthcare workers and first responders, while Illinois and New Jersey have extended the coverage to “essential workers,” and Wyoming has extended the coverage to all workers. Three states — Arkansas, New Hampshire, and North Dakota — have used executive powers to extend workers’ compensation insurance to healthcare and frontline workers, while another three — California, Connecticut, and Kentucky — have also used executive powers to extend workers’ compensation insurance to “essential workers” in general, which include healthcare and frontline workers.
The Departments of Labor in Missouri and Washington have instituted an emergency adjustment to the states’ workers’ compensation insurance statutes to extend coverage to healthcare and frontline workers who are affected by COVID-19. Meanwhile, in Michigan, emergency rules have been implemented to extend workers’ compensation benefits to healthcare and frontline workers.
“Essential workers” are those whose field of employment is essential to the health, sanitation, wellbeing, or general function of society. This includes, but is not limited to: first responders, healthcare workers, grocery workers, transportation workers, sanitation workers, energy workers, childcare workers, repair workers, and agricultural workers.
Because these workers are necessary for the effective function of society, it is important that they continue to work even if most others cannot or should not, such as in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic. This puts these workers at higher risk for COVID-19 infection. However, there are many ways that essential businesses can protect their employees, consumers, and business interests, such as the enforcement of social distancing rules, or through the use of liability waivers for customers.
Federal employees benefit from some additional protective policies and resources, the most notable of which is the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA). FECA is a law that provides compensation for federal employees who have lost wages due to injury or illness sustained during the course of their work. In other words, it is a workers’ compensation insurance program that is specific to federal employees. FECA does cover losses due to COVID-19 contracted in the course of their work. This is very important for federal employees as they are integral to government functions as well as public safety (in the case of some first responders), and often spend a lot of time in contact with the public by necessity.
Barring a handful of statewide initiatives, employer responsibilities during the COVID-19 crisis are largely unregulated. While many businesses are making efforts to protect their employees, this is often done on an elective basis. Elective measures that many businesses are implementing include:
- Expansion of remote work options;
- Mandatory symptom surveys;
- Daily testing for fevers;
- Enforcement of social distancing rules;
- Use of physical barriers such as sneeze guards;
- Implementation of specific return-to-work policies;
- Offering resources and options that will allow employees to return to work safely.
The process for reporting an illness or injury for a workers’ compensation claim depends on the state that you live in. Many states require you to give a written account of the injury/illness and how it was sustained, or else require you to fill out a specific form for this purpose. However, some states do allow oral reporting as well.
In many states, this report must be made by a certain deadline. This deadline can be anywhere from a few days to a few months, depending on state requirements. In the case of an ongoing or progressive illness or injury such as carpal tunnel syndrome, the deadline often still does apply, with the time period beginning at diagnosis of the issue and/or your awareness of its connection to your work. Depending on the state, you may also need to fill out a workers’ compensation claim form with your state workers’ compensation agency. Finally, while it is not required, it is in your best interest to hire a workers’ compensation attorney as soon as possible, as they can guide you through the claim process and be prepared in the event that your claim is challenged.
In addition to reactive options, such as filing for workers’ compensation in the event that you are infected with coronavirus at work, there are also preventative legal options you can pursue to address coronavirus hazards in your workplace. These options include:
- Filing a complaint with OSHA: Employees can file a complaint about safety violations at their place of work by simply contacting their OSHA office through any avenue, including through email, over the phone, or during an in-person visit.
- Filing a public nuisance lawsuit against your employer: Public nuisance lawsuits are litigation that deals with environmental or social damage, and many employees have used it as grounds on which to sue their employer for coronavirus infection at work. It will be necessary to hire a lawyer who deals with coronavirus-related lawsuits in order to pursue this form of legal action.
- Filing an employer negligence lawsuit: Employer negligence lawsuits can be brought against an employer when an employee is needlessly endangered at work due to negligence on the part of the employer. Again, a lawyer will need to be hired in order to pursue this legal action, for any type of safety violation, including those related to coronavirus.
Considering safety concerns associated with the pandemic, it is in your best interest to handle legal concerns remotely as much as possible. Therefore, you should seek out a lawyer who is sensitive to COVID-19 safety protocols to handle cases during the pandemic.
Only a few states support workers’ compensation claims on the basis of COVID-19 infection. In fact, even in the states that do support such claims, it is certainly possible for your claim to be denied. However, in this situation, there are other options available to you. These options include:
- The CARES Act: This legislation provides financial resources for individuals and small businesses that are experiencing economic hardships related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Coronavirus-related PTO: Some companies offer additional paid-time-off for individuals who are infected with COVID-19.
- The American Nurses Foundation Coronavirus Response Fund for Nurses: This nonprofit offers a grant for RNs, LPNs, and LVNs who are infected with COVID-19, are under mandatory quarantine, or are caring for an infected family member.