During the pandemic, many workers are concerned about their health and what, if anything, their workplace will do to compensate or protect them if they catch COVID-19. This is especially an issue for those who don’t have health insurance or other benefits.
Workers’ compensation generally covers the cost of pain and injury incurred while on the job. With the resurgence of COVID and the need for essential employees to often put their lives on the line, some wonder: Does workers’ comp cover pain and suffering and the medical costs caused by COVID?
The answer is: maybe, depending on your job. To understand this, we will dive into what workers’ comp usually covers, the situations where it does and doesn’t cover COVID, and what your other options are if you catch the virus and don’t have a legal claim to workers’ comp.
What does workers’ compensation usually cover?
As a general rule, workers’ comp usually only covers the loss of wages and medical expenses for work-related injuries. This means compensation for emotional distress, pain, suffering, or illness is usually not available. In addition, workers’ compensation usually only offers settlements if the injured worker agrees to opt out of payments for ongoing medical treatments.
Because of this, most infectious diseases are not covered by workers’ comp, as they cannot be proven to be connected to the workplace. However, there are some exceptions. For example, some states have made exceptions for chronic illnesses like cancer that developed due to repeated exposure to hazardous materials in the workplace.
Firefighters and other first responders are often covered for lung and respiratory illnesses, as they are considered work-related, though whether these policies will extend to COVID is currently not clear.
In what situations can workers’ compensation cover COVID?
While some companies, like those in the meatpacking industry, encourage their workers to get vaccines and even offer bonuses, others prioritize profits over employee safety and health. Some employees are forced to work in unsanitary and unsafe conditions where getting coronavirus is a real and present danger.
In many states, workers’ compensation will cover quarantined health workers and first responders. Many states seem to be following this model, which means that those who do not work in these industries may have a harder time getting their medical costs for COVID covered. However, some states are extending these guidelines to all essential workers.
Many federal employees are considered as being in a line of work that puts them at a higher risk of infection. Some fields considered high-risk include law enforcement and other jobs that require close, in-person contact with the general populace.
Currently, many states are adjusting their policies to place the burden of proof on the employer to prove that the COVID infection wasn’t work-related.
In some cases, COVID may be considered an occupational disease. An occupational disease is covered by workers’ compensation if it arises “out of and in the course of employment,” according to NRS chapter 617.
So, even if you are not a health worker or first responder, you may be able to get compensation. You will need to prove that the nature of your job caused your illness or put you at a higher risk of exposure than the general public. Also, you must have caught the virus because of a specific exposure incident while doing your job.
What other options are there for COVID protection in the workplace?
There are some employees forced to work during the pandemic that haven’t been considered essential yet and therefore are not eligible for the first wave of vaccinations. These include aviation workers who are assisting with vaccine distribution worldwide.
For those who are not given access to vaccinations but who still need to work in a public-facing and potentially dangerous position, your workplace may have only provided physical and sanitary protections, such as masks and gloves or sanitizing stations.
New OSHA guidelines have provided industry-specific and general advice on how to protect employees from COVID, including recommending that all employers implement COVID-19 prevention programs. These programs should include hazard assessment, protective measure assessment and adoption, and worker retaliation protection. The latter ensures that workers who raise concerns about the risks of COVID-19 are not punished or retaliated against.
Employers are required to provide a safe and healthy workplace for their employees, and you have the right to demand that your workplace conducts a safety assessment. Employers should also consider making a COVID vaccination series available at no cost to their employees as soon as possible.
Prior OSHA standards regarding infection still apply in the current climate, including respiratory protection measures and rules regarding employee access to medical and exposure records.
Many employers have taken advantage of the federal Paycheck Protection Program to continue covering the cost of their employees’ wages and other bills, and while this does not necessarily cover medical costs, it does provide employers with enough wiggle room to potentially compensate infected employees.
Which is better: workers’ compensation or a pain and suffering lawsuit?
Be aware that workers’ comp exists to keep the injured worker from suing the company, which is why emotional distress and other issues regarding pain and suffering are not covered. This means that even if you are working in a field where workers’ comp would cover COVID, you won’t be able to sue your employer for causing your infection in the first place.
This means that if you feel your employer put you in danger or caused you pain and suffering that you believe you have a right to be paid back for, you might want to pursue a personal injury suit rather than a workers’ comp claim.
Workers’ comp will only cover medical costs and the cost of any lost wages. If all you need are your healthcare expenses for COVID treatment and your wages, and you work in a health-related or first responder field, then pursuing a workers’ comp claim may be perfect for you.
If you think that your particular situation could be covered under workers’ comp regulations, talk to a lawyer first to see if you have a valid claim. They may be able to help recommend the best course of action and see that you are justly compensated.
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