As much of the nation returns to work in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, many employees will find themselves at risk of contracting the virus in the workplace. Although responsible employers are providing PPE and instituting strict social distancing and disinfecting procedures, some amount of risk is inevitable.
If you suspect you've contracted COVID-19 at work, you might be wondering whether you'll qualify for workers' compensation benefits. As ever, the answer depends on the circumstances.
In general, workers’ compensation benefits are available to employees who suffer a work-related injury or occupational disease. Benefits can include cash payments, reimbursement of medical bills, and rehabilitation expenses. Death benefits are also available for family members of employees who die as a result of their accident or illness.
To qualify for workers' comp based on an occupational illness, the worker must prove that the illness:
An employee is acting in the "course and scope of employment" when doing something to benefit the employer. Often, this simply means performing one's job in one's ordinary workplace. But it can also include picking up a company executive from the airport, meeting a client at a coffee shop, or putting up decorations for the office holiday party. If you're acting for your employer's benefit and you get hurt or contract an occupational illness—whether you're at your actual workplace or not—you're ordinarily covered by workers' comp.
A disease is "peculiar" to a job when the risk of contracting it is materially greater than the risk posed to the general public. Ordinary diseases of life such as the flu or common cold are not peculiar to employment and are not covered by workers’ compensation. By contrast, valid occupational disease claims include those from workers who developed mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos on the job, and healthcare providers diagnosed with HIV after treating infected patients.
Many states have already released guidance stating that COVID-19 is not covered by workers' compensation. The reason is that—even if you can somehow establish that you contracted it work—COVID-19 is usually not caused by conditions peculiar to the job (with a few possible exceptions). Rather, the condition is widespread among the general public and can be contracted virtually anywhere.
However, not all states are completely rejecting the idea of covering COVID-19 claims, at least under certain circumstances. In California, the governor issued an executive order on May 6, 2020 stating that employees who reported to their employer’s worksite between March 19 and July 5, 2020 and tested positive or were diagnosed with a COVID-19-related illness, may be eligible for workers’ compensation payments.
In those states that haven't ruled out workers' comp for COVID-19, your chances of success are likely higher if you have a job that by its nature requires a great risk of exposure to the coronavirus. For example, first-responders and medical professionals who contract COVID-19 will have a decent chance of obtaining workers' comp benefits in many states.
Some states, like California and Missouri, have passed laws creating a rebuttable presumption of work-related coronavirus exposure for first responders, medical professionals, and other front-line workers.
To learn about your state's approach to workers' compensation for coronavirus, visit the website of your state's department of labor.
Even if you don't qualify for workers' compensation benefits, other support is available. Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which applies to employers with fewer than 500 employees, you're entitled to up to 10 days of sick pay at your regular rate of pay (up to $511 per day) if you meet any of the following criteria:
You're also entitled to up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which covers private employers with at least 50 full-time (or full-time equivalent) employees.
You might also have additional rights under your state's family and medical leave laws or your employer's policies. Check with your state's labor department or your employer's human resources department or employee handbook for further information.
If you're a healthcare worker, first responder, or otherwise on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak, you might have a good chance of prevailing on a workers' comp case if you contract COVID-19. If you need help filing an initial claim or your claim has been denied, contact an experienced workers' comp attorney for help.
For those whose jobs don't involve an especially high risk of exposure, it might be more difficult to get approved for benefits, but it's not impossible. In these cases, hiring a workers' comp attorney to handle your claim will increase your chances of success.