Under the current rules, employees who want to claim workers’ compensation must show they suffered a job-related injury or illness. The New Jersey AFL-CIO is arguing that since COVID-19 is pervasive and can be spread easily, it can be hard to clearly trace it back to someone’s workplace.
“As much as we appreciate seeing the nightly news clips of cheering neighbors welcoming home first responders after a grueling day’s work at health care facilities treating coronavirus victims, more must be done to ensure the values we put on display are indeed embraced by our elected officials,” said Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey AFL-CIO.
The union is calling on lawmakers to pass a bill that would take the onus of proving a workplace infection from essential workers and presume infected workers contracted the virus at their workplace.
“Our members have provided an unprecedented response to the need of the public, and it’s critical that our lawmakers don’t forget these workers’ own needs as well,” Wowkanech said.
Some states, including Minnesota, Missouri, and Florida, have already signed legislation guaranteeing workers’ compensation benefits for front-line workers who contract the disease.
Florida started processing claims from essential workers in March. That state’s Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis ordered the Division of Risk Management to review claims submitted by workers who are “required to interact with potentially infected individuals.”
Workers who are eligible include healthcare workers, law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics, correctional officers, national guardsmen, and child safety workers. Patronis’ order doesn’t extend to other essential workers whose jobs increase their risk of exposure to the coronavirus, such as grocery store employees, servers, delivery drivers, and office workers.
What would this mean for employers in Florida?
Florida’s workers’ comp rates have declined for three consecutive years now, making them among the lowest in the nation. However, experts are warning employers to be prepared for skyrocketing premiums in the coming months.
Michael Duff, a workers’ compensation professor at the University of Wyoming, told Bloomberg News that premiums are likely to go up because an anticipated increase in claims will coincide with a big decline in payroll payments. The effect will likely be magnified if the requirements for filing claims are extended to make COVID-19 a compensable disease.
Employers should alter some of their policies in anticipation of workers’ comp claims for COVID-19. Some changes include being flexible with sick leave policies to encourage workers who are sick to stay at home, offering telecommuting options, and limiting non-essential travel.
This is completely new territory, and until the virus dies out, it will be difficult to quantify what kind of effect policy changes to workers’ comp laws made in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic will have on businesses.
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