In mid-March, New York and the rest of the country went into shutdown in an attempt to flatten the curve of COVID-19. Stay-at-home orders in all 50 states resulted in businesses closing down, creating massive layoffs, with one in five workers in this country filing for unemployment insurance. Despite all the shutdowns and work-at-home industries, there are also many workers who have been deemed essential and are still going to work every day. These workers are being exposed to the virus and thousands have become sick with COVID-19 and, tragically, many of these workers have died. For many of these victims, workers’ compensation won’t cover many coronavirus claims.
And as each state begins to ease up on restrictions and businesses reopen despite the continued high numbers of infections and death, there are high risks to those workers who will be returning to their jobs. All of this can lead to thousands of employees who become infected with COVID-19 because of their exposure at work, either through other employees or customers. The question for these workers and their families is whether or not workers’ compensation will cover these coronavirus claims.
While every state sets its own workers’ compensation laws, occupational illnesses and diseases are recognized as legitimate conditions that qualify for workers’ compensation benefits. Under New York workers’ compensation law, an occupational disease is defined as “arising from the nature of employment and contracted herein.”
However, the majority of states have a general exclusion for bacterial or viral illnesses that leave employees who have been exposed and unable to work not eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. For example, a worker who catches the flu from a co-worker and misses a week from work because they are ill would not qualify for workers’ compensation benefits.
However, there are also conditions that have been classified as presumptive illnesses and do qualify for workers’ compensation. In some states, COVID-19 has been added to those lists, meaning if a worker can prove they caught the virus at work or if they are in quarantine because they have been exposed to someone at work who has the virus, they may qualify for benefits.
Some states have put measures in place that would help certain employees qualify for benefits, yet there are still many states that have laws in place that mean workers’ compensation won’t cover many coronavirus claims, especially for workers who are not deemed “essential” and at high-risk, such as hospital workers and emergency responders.
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Filing and receiving workers’ compensation benefits for an occupational illness can be a complex process under “normal” times, but will be even more difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers’ compensation won’t cover many coronavirus claims for employees who should be covered. This is why any worker who has become sick with the virus and believes their exposure occurred on the job should contact the legal team at Polsky, Shouldice & Rosen, P.C.