From the early days of the pandemic, COVID-19 has rapidly and dramatically altered the landscape of employment policy for businesses around the United States. Among the most pressing policy topics were questions regarding the potential to contract COVID-19 at work. Was it possible to determine whether COVID-19 was contracted at work? What were the implications on workers' compensation?
In the months since, policymakers in the United States have sought to clarify workers' compensation coverage in the context of COVID-19. Traditionally, workers’ compensation policies have not covered a viral illness like cold or flu precisely because of the difficulty of proving a worker contracted a virus on the job. However, the National Council on State Legislatures has identified 14 states that have sought to expand workers’ compensation coverage to include COVID-19 as a work-related illness for certain categories of employees. While these moves have failed in two states (Kansas and Louisiana), other states have successfully enacted policies or proposed bills that are pending final decisions. Employees who do receive expanded coverage will likely still need to offer evidence that they contracted COVID-19 in the course of their job duties in order to qualify for workers’ compensation.
With such changes under discussion, employers can expect to see an uptick in COVID-19-related workers' compensation claims. For example, The Washington Post reported on July 27 that approximately 4,000 federal employees had sought disability compensation for COVID-19, and an additional 60 families had sought death benefits for a COVID-19-related death. All these filings claim these individuals contracted the virus in the course of their work. In July, the Inspector General filed a report with the Department of Labor, estimating that such claims from federal employees would grow to 6,000 by early August.
Employers monitoring these trends should review their policies and processes to ensure they are consistent with relevant guidance. Law firm Ogletree Deakins advises,
“Employers can prepare for workers’ compensation claims by following and keeping up to date on CDC, OSHA, and other state guidelines for a safe workplace. In addition, employers can prepare by keeping good records and illustrating the steps taken to prevent infection from getting into and spreading in the workplace.”
With the right prevention policies, documentation, and communication, employers can create the safest possible workplace and be prepared to discuss possible workers' compensation claims in the coming months.
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