Should COVID-19 Be Covered by Workers’ Comp?

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The response for the COVID-19 pandemic has been far from a unitary one. States took very different approaches to deal with the ongoing state of emergency. Policymakers, in particular, are faced with the challenge of integrating relief packages in the existing legislative landscape.

Including COVID-19 in the workers’ comp coverage is a complex issue for two main reasons: 1) it is an infectious disease, and 2) it is not categorized as an occupational disease. The discussion about whether or not it should become part of the compensation package is hindered by the (still) little available data on the matter and the ongoing strain on governments and officials, not to mention the healthcare system.

The main possible benefits include financial support for workers with a modest income, while the biggest concerns revolve around the cost of such a legislative shift. The cost to society is also considered.

A Few Words About Workers’ Compensation

Workers’ compensation was designed to offer a set of benefits to both employer and employee. These benefits come into play when an employee suffers a work-related injury or illness. The victim is reimbursed for medical bills that relate to the injury or illness in question. Furthermore, lost wages are also covered. These payments offer a financial security blanket that can significantly ease the impact of a potentially traumatic event.

Workers’ compensation is meant to cover work-related disease or injury but does not generally include “ordinary diseases of life”, because it can be very hard – sometimes impossible – to prove that it’s job-related. Therefore the common flu, for example, does not qualify as an occupational disease.

Of course, these labor laws differ between states. Some types of chronic illness have been included in workers’ comp. For example, in some states employees who develop cancer after long-term exposure to dangerous materials are now protected by workers’ comp. Also, several states include lung and respiratory disease developed by first responders in the compensation package.

Possible Benefits

In the following, we will consider some of the main benefits that are brought up in the discussion around including COVID-19 in workers’ compensation.

Help High-Risk Essential Workers

Remote work has been implemented by many companies as a solution to decrease employees’ risk of exposure. However, this is not always an option. Those who are unable to perform their work-related tasks remotely expose themselves to possible contagion while commuting to the office and back but also during office hours.

If COVID-19 was included on workers’ comp, this could help many employees who are exposed. What is more, workers with lower salary packages would also clearly benefit since workers’ compensation would cover medical bills and lost wages. The reality is that for many families with more modest incomes, going beyond the strict implication on health, it would be a struggle to recover financially following contagion.

Bureaucratic Efficiency?

This may seem like a contradictory junction of terms but let us consider it for a minute. Given the ongoing strain on government institutions, it is worth directing thought and energy into alternative means to ease the burden on sectors that are currently over solicited. You might wonder how workers’ compensation can figure into the equation. Well, these are usually covered by decentralized private entities, like insurance companies.

Possible Drawbacks

As expected, the main concerns about having workers’ compensation cover COVID-19 is cost related. Also, not having enough scientific data about the illness and its implications figures into the equation.

High Cost

One of the biggest concerns of employers regarding expanding workers’ comp to include COVID-19 is that it would be too costly. It is still early to have an exact figure, but preliminary research has shown some rather high figures. For example, in California, the total system cost would be $33,6 billion.

What Would be the Total Cost for Society?

This question is yet to be answered. Many argue that costs will still be there if they are not included in workers’ comp. An expanded coverage could also provide social benefits that might help slow down or impede the spread of contagion.

For example, workers could be encouraged not to work while contagious, knowing that they are financially covered. This of course should be considered as a great advantage to society. Answering this question is essential, if policymakers are seriously debating the inclusion of COVID-19 in the workers’ comp.

Is COVID-19 Already Covered by Workers’ Comp?

There is no simple “yes” or “no” answer. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many fields to new dangers. Some jobs, particularly in healthcare, are more at risk of becoming infected at the workplace.

The problem is that even in the case of medical workers, some argue that it cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the infectious event took place within working hours. Therefore, workers’ compensation benefits for COVID-19 are not guaranteed in the majority of states, not even for employees who are at a high risk of infection.

Since the situation is currently highly volatile across states, the best option for those who suspect to have been infected by COVID-19 during work is to contact a qualified workers compensation attorney. They will be able to offer guidance about what actions can and should be pursued.

The Debate Continues

As of yet, there is no clear answer or solution to COVID-19 being covered by workers’ compensation. However, as the situation drags on, hopefully, experts can collect enough data to make an informed decision about integrating the virus into workers’ comp.