Workers' Compensation for COVID-Related Injuries
A big question on the minds of many is whether COVID-related illnesses, symptoms, and complications are eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. Though we have been wrestling with COVID for well over a year now, the answer still remains less than clear.
Workers’ compensation derives from state statutory schemes for most employees. In other words, each state has its own rules, processes, and laws defining what benefits are due and interpreting when and how they are paid. Most, like Alabama’s, provide compensation for on-the-job injuries for employees in the private workplace. There are other provisions made for many state and federal employees, and for people whose work is principally on navigable waters. So, when referring to workers’ comp, people are usually referring to those private (non-public/non-governmental) employees.
Workers’ compensation requires that an employer provide medical care for those injuries sustained on the job and compensation for lost time from work. If an employee suffers a permanent injury, he may be entitled to total or partial disability depending on the extent of the injuries and their impact on his job duties.
So, the main questions confronted by one suffering from COVID-related illnesses, conditions, or after-effects is whether the COVID was an on-the-job injury and, if so, what disability resulted from them.
The first hurdle is whether contracting the COVID was an on-the-job injury.
Generally, widespread communicable diseases or conditions such as COVID are difficult to establish as on-the-job injuries. After all, the burden of proving the injury occurred on the job is on the employee. Imagine the difficulty establishing that COVID was acquired at work as opposed to from the multitude of other sources encountered in our daily lives outside of work. There may be some exceptions where the source of the infection is more easily established, but they are few.
Assuming that contracting COVID at the workplace can be established (a high hurdle), what compensation is due?
If one was out of work with conditions attributable to COVID, then temporary total disability would be due. That is basically two-thirds of one’s average weekly wage. Once maximum medical improvement is reached, whether someone suffers from permanent partial or permanent total disability must be established. Someone is partially disabled if they cannot perform the essential functions of their pre-injury job and are only able to work in a job that pays less. Total disability is when the employee cannot return to any meaningful employment. The problem with COVID is that we do not yet know the extent nor permanency of its impacts on the human body.
So, what to do? The workers' compensation statutes are clear. An employer must be given notice of an on-the-job injury. If in doubt, notify the employer of the injury and reserve the right to file a workers compensation claim. At a minimum, you may gain some protections by doing so.