By Eric Lawson, professional legal writer
Workers’ compensation benefits are set-up to serve as a safety net of sorts for employees injured on the job.
Even as the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has forced many U.S. workers to either work from home or take a leave of absence through furloughs in the name of “flattening the curve,” millions of others have reported to work as normal despite the potential dangers.
In order to keep their jobs, they have to show up on site because their state governors have branded their services as “essential.”
Unfortunately, reports are flooding in about essential employees who got COVID-19 while on the job.
What are their options? Are they legally able to receive workers’ comp benefits?
How Do I Get Workers’ Comp Because of COVID-19 Infection?
Obtaining workers’ comp insurance benefits because of COVID-19 infection is possible, but there will be significant challenges. Hundreds of lawsuits related to the novel coronavirus have already been launched. It’s thought that each workers’ comp claim will be heavily scrutinized..
In just about any other work-injury related situation, you would have to prove that:
- You were either injured or came down with an illness – like the coronavirus – while on the job, or
- Experienced an injury or became infected while doing a work-related activity.
For example, if you’re a police officer who became infected while making an arrest, it’s likely you’d qualify for workers’ comp insurance.
Since the coronavirus map stretches so far and wide because of it being airborne and easily transmitted, the ability to know the precise moment and location of when you became infected will be challenging.
As most businesses and organizations are using or following at least some of the protective guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), it may be even harder to prove you were exposed to the coronavirus at work.
That’s not to say that your workers’ comp claim would quickly be dismissed.
Keep in mind that the rules for workers’ compensation programs are run at the state level, and each state has its own set of guidelines.
As an illustration, in New Jersey, first responders (police, paramedics, etc.) will probably be covered by that state’s workers’ comp benefits if they get COVID-19 while responding to a call during the pandemic. Workers in other fields, though, would have to prove the connection between the coronavirus and their employer in order to be eligible for workers’ comp insurance.
The best option is to hire a personal injury lawyer who specializes in successfully handling workers’ comp claims.
What Illnesses are Covered Under Workers’ Compensation?
There is language in most workers’ comp guidelines for insurance protection for workers exposed to various diseases and illnesses. However, those rules and guidelines differ from state to state.
For example, while some states make a difference between what’s known as “occupational diseases” and “ordinary diseases of life.”
- Occupational diseases. Think of these as types of sicknesses that develop because of an extended exposure to an environment or substance that makes you ill. Good examples of this include asbestos exposure of industrial work workers, firefighters, construction crew members and others.
A workers’ compensation claim may be successful if the exposure leads to a serious condition like mesothelioma or lung cancer.
- Ordinary diseases of life. These are illnesses or conditions that the general public is exposed to beyond the workplace. Examples of this include the cold, flu and viruses.
As for how the coronavirus will be treated, it’s difficult to say with certainty how each workers’ claim will be viewed. Much will depend on when and where you became infected, and what steps your employer took to prevent your exposure to it.
A good way to measure how COVID-19 victims will be treated in terms of workers’ compensation laws is to look at the meat and food processing industry. According to recent reports, as many as 5,000 meat and food-processing workers in the U.S. may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus.
Among the 5,000 who may have been infected with COVID-19 are 13 people who lost their lives because of it.
Some of the major meat processors in the U.S. have decided to temporarily shutter their doors because of the coronavirus. Those that have remained open say they have taken steps including bleaching the hallways and doorways and installing dividers to separate employees from one another.
What Can I Do If My Employer Did Not Take Precaution?
If your employer did not follow any of the CDC guidelines, you may be able to file a claim against your employer for gross negligence.
It’s important to remember that the concept of workers’ compensation insurance is a tradeoff of sorts. The insurance exists as a way to make sure injured workers get the financial help they need in exchange for not directly suing their employer.
If an employer fails to provide workers with a certain level of care, they are possibly opening themselves up for lawsuits. A successful claim of gross negligence against your employer could provide you access to the wages you would have earned if you weren’t injured – as well as compensation for your pain and suffering and emotional distress.
Like any personal injury claim, you must meet certain legal thresholds in order to prove gross negligence. This includes:
- You were owed a certain level of care by someone else (your employer)
- You didn’t receive that level of care
- That loss of care led directly to either your injuries or illness
- You experienced certain losses or damages because of the other person’s failure to provide your with a certain level of care.
Depending upon the workers’ compensation guidelines in your state, all of those legal thresholds – and possibly others – will have to be met in order to receive your insurance benefits.
Who is Considered to be an Essential Employee?
In the wake of the novel coronavirus, the term “essential employee” seemingly became a part of the American lexicon.
Much like workers’ compensation insurance guidelines, classifications of whom is an essential employee has been determined mostly by state governors. Those groupings were made as governors made their decisions about temporarily restricting business operations in their states.
Among those listed as essential employees by their state governments are:
Healthcare providers (physicians, pharmacists, dentists, psychologists, therapists, chiropractors, and others)
- Hospital and laboratory workers
- Nursing home staff
- Rural health clinic workers
- Public health and community health workers
- Security workers
- Law enforcement personnel
- Energy sector workers (petroleum, electricity, solar, nuclear, wind, etc.)
- Grocery store and convenience store workers
- Food packaging workers
- Warehouse workers
- Food manufacturers
- Restaurant food prep workers, carry-out and quick-serve workers
- Farm workers
- Veterinary services
Women represent a particular segment of the work population that’s been hit especially hard by COVID-19. As many as one in three jobs typically held by women has been deemed to be “essential.”
These workers are especially vulnerable because they are generally paid less than their male counterparts. Even in the legal field, women continue to face discrimination. Interestingly, even though COVID-19 appears to infect men more often than women, 73 percent of the health care force who have been infected since the pandemic began are women.
In that industry alone, it’s women who have steadily increased their presence. While many serve as surgeons and other specialists, millions more dominate the workforce devoted to helping vulnerable people in assisted living facilities and other health care locations.
What Should I Do If I Think I May Have Got COVID-19 at Work?
Just like any other workers’ compensation claim, you must tell your employer about your illness as soon as you become aware of it – even if you no longer work there.
Even though it’s true that you’ll probably not be aware of the illness at the moment of exposure, you must report it to your boss as soon as possible.
Most workers’ compensation laws have strict time limits in place for filing claims.
For example, in most states, you have to file a claim within two years of your accident or illness. If you miss the deadline, you’ll likely miss out on any claims you have to your workers’ compensation insurance benefits.
To file a workers’ comp claim, you need to do several things.
- Be examined by a licensed doctor. Even if the symptoms aren’t severe, a doctor will know exactly what to look for.
- Report your illness to your employer. Be sure to keep a copy of your report for your records and include your name and contact information; the date you feel you were exposed to the coronavirus; and the symptoms you experienced.
- See a personal injury lawyer who specializes in workers’ comp claims. Your state has established a specific set of instructions for filing such claims. If just one step or date is missed, you could miss out on the compensation you deserve. A personal injury lawyer will be able to guide you through the process to make sure each step is taken.
What Should I Do If My Loved One Died Because Of Coronavirus Infection at Work?
Losing a loved one is rarely easy. It’s far worse if you feel someone else’s negligence caused the loss.
In many workers’ compensation plans, “death benefits” are available to surviving family members dependent upon their loved one’s income. In most states, only the victim’s spouse, children and parents are able to receive the benefits.
The Key Takeaway
In many ways, we’re in uncharted waters in terms of how the novel coronavirus will be treated by workers’ compensation guidelines. Your best course of action is to leverage the skills and expertise of a personal injury lawyer who can secure the justice and compensation you deserve.
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