The scenario is becoming more and more a reality: workers on the job becoming ill with COVID-19. Much of what is happening across the US has never happened before, so the question remains unanswered: Can workers who have to remain on the job file for worker’s compensation if they contract the virus? The answer isn’t clear yet.
On the job injuries, which come with paid time away from the job and paid medical bills, must be proven before those benefits will be awarded. And that’s not easy in the case of the current crisis with the coronavirus. The Bureau of Workers’ Comp has to be able to find proof that the employer is to blame. And since you can contract the virus while doing everyday activities outside of work, too, it won’t be easy.
Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation Administrator Stephanie McCloud agrees. However, she also encourages workers to file the claim anyway if they believe their place of employment didn’t protect employees against COVID-19. She said nearly 20 people have already filed such claims and those are still in the investigation stage.
“But if you work in a job that poses a special hazard or risk, and you can track that to COVID-19, we encourage you to go ahead and file that claim,” said McCloud.
She also said that her office is receiving many calls from employees who feel their place of business should be closed for the crisis, but remain open. Many indicate that they are worried about the spread of the disease and their company should be closed until the danger passes.
“The employers are putting their workers in danger because they’re not taking care of their health,” said one man. Another worker agreed and said everyone at work is concerned about the spread of the virus among those at work.
Many states have Worker’s Comp laws that exclude “ordinary diseases of life” which would include flu or a cold. There are some jobs that arguably would have a higher probability for exposure such as healthcare workers. But would even those claims be approved as a compensable disease? However, even in those cases, there may be uncertainty as to whether the disease is compensable. And what about time away from work; would that be a temporary disability or normal sick time? The questions continue.
The State of Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries announced a new policy related to workers compensation coverage for healthcare workers and first responders. Washington state will provide benefits to these workers during the time that they are quarantined after being exposed to coronavirus on the job. This expanded coverage will pay for medical testing, treatment expenses if a worker becomes ill or injured, and provide indemnity payments for those who cannot work if they are sick or quarantined. At least 10 other states are considering the same policies.
Moving forward, employers have begun to alter some of their policies in order to anticipate WC claims from COVID-19. Some of those policies include limiting nonessential travel, maximizing telecommuting options, and being flexible on sick leave policies to encourage employees to stay home when they are ill. Large in-person conferences have also been postponed indefinitely for many industries.
Only time will tell. As the virus spreads and eventually dies out we will find out what effect those kinds of changes may have had on the number of WC claims filed or awarded. Whether all of this will have a negative effect on our economy is also uncertain. But as Ms.McCloud states, employees should file a claim if they believe they have been injured at the hands of their company.
We all are in uncharted waters.
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