As a handful of states are pushing for an expansion of workers’ compensation benefits to all employees who have caught Covid-19 on the job, there are several roadblocks lawmakers need to first surpass. One such obstacle is the burden of proof that the infection was caught at the workplace.
What Does Workers’ Comp Traditionally Cover?
Workers’ compensation insurance traditionally covers most damages spurred by injuries and illnesses from a work-related cause. That includes injuries and illnesses that didn’t occur at one’s workplace, but are clearly work-related. The worker’s compensation system was set in place to avoid costly legal battles between workers and their employers under personal injury law.
Workers’ comp usually covers:
- Medical treatments, including OTC meds and therapy
- Compensation for fatal injuries
- Income losses
- Legal expenses
- Rehabilitation and retraining expenses (in some states)
Workers’ comp does not cover for injuries that aren’t caused by a work-related accident, but very often benefits have been granted to workers suffering from chronic back problems and repetitive stress injuries (RSIs), such as pain and tenderness in some parts of the body due to overuse or misuse as long as the injury is work-related.
When it comes to diseases, workers are eligible for compensation under workers’ comp laws for all occupational diseases. But the definition of occupational diseases varies greatly across states. Most states include occupational hearing loss, occupational asthma, work-related COPD, occupational dermatitis in their list of classic occupational disease.
A few states have even added the common cold or flu to the list as long as the exposure to it was greater due to the nature of the occupation. The cold and flu fall in the so-called “ordinary diseases of life” category.
Does Workers’ Comp Cover for Covid-19?
Currently, most states limit workers’ compensation coverage for the new viral disease only to the scenarios in which COVID-19 exposure is “inherent in the employment.” This means that doctors, nurses, EMTs, grocery store clerks, flight attendants, police officers, and other frontline workers are eligible for benefits.
The only caveat is that, when filing workers compensation claims, all of these workers have to prove that they contracted COVID-19 on the job. This means that insurance companies are free to deny claims as they wish because it is nearly impossible to prove the exact place a person first got in contact with the pathogen.
That’s why several states have been working on regulation to create a legal presumption that all frontline workers diagnosed with COVID-19 have contracted it at the workplace. California has such a presumption in place since May when Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed an executive order.
Ever since, workers’ compensation claims have surged in the Golden State even among non-frontline workers such as meat factory workers as they no longer have to prove that the infection was acquired on the job site.
Since employers and insurers now need to demonstrate that the infection was not work-related, the move has drawn heavy criticism by the business community because it is likely to boost insurance costs at a time where many businesses are struggling to stay afloat.
Do I Qualify for Workers’ Comp Benefits If I Have Covid-19?
If you have been diagnosed with coronavirus and believe that it is due to a higher-than-usual exposure because of the nature of your work, you may be entitled to workers’ comp benefits only if you have employee status. So, independent contractors are not covered.
What’s more, some employees are not covered under worker’s compensation law such as business owners, some temporary workers, volunteers, and federal employees. If you are one of these and was diagnosed with Covid-19 while on the job you are not entitled to workers comp.
For the rest of workers, though, the answer varies based on each state’s laws and whether the employee is an essential or a non-essential worker. In most states, workers’ compensation does not cover for ordinary diseases of life such as the flu even if it was likely contracted at work because one cannot prove for sure that they caught the virus at the workplace.
Some states have adopted exceptions to the rule and presume that essential workers that work in hazardous conditions such as healthcare employees are eligible for workers’ comp benefits if they get sick. But in most states, even if you work in a hazardous environment, no one guarantees that you’ll get compensation under workers comp laws. The only option you have is a personal injury lawsuit against your employer.
In general, workers’ compensation does not cover for a COVID-19 diagnosis because it is impossible to prove that you contracted the virus at work. But a handful of states have made an exception and now presume that high-risk workers such as health care employees diagnosed with the virus got sick on the job. But by switching the burden of proof onto business owners’ shoulders can only make things worse for those already facing financial troubles.