workers' compensation for essential workers

Workers’ Comp Protections for Essential Workers in N.C.

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A proposed N.C. General Assembly bill that would make it easier for first responders, health care workers, and other essential workers who get sick from coronavirus to receive workers’ compensation benefits is being opposed by business groups.

Existing workers’ compensation law in North Carolina includes a special test in order to recover benefits for occupational diseases. An employee first has to prove that their illness occurred as a result of their employment, but also that their employment placed them at an increased risk of contracting the occupational disease than the general public.

The new bill would make obtaining workers’ compensation benefits easier for essential workers. This bill creates a “rebuttable presumption” that essential workers who become infected with COVID-19 got it at work.

A rebuttable presumption means that unless the employer could prove the employee was affected elsewhere, the employee has met their burden of proving causation.

House Bill 1057  has 60 sponsors — almost enough to pass the state House – and bipartisan support, according to WRAL. But N.C. Chamber, N.C. Association of County Commissioners and 25 business lobby groups representing retailers, pork producers, trucking companies, manufacturing companies, gas stations, restaurants, hotels, and hospitals, have opposed it.

Their argument against providing presumptive workers’ comp benefits to essential workers who become sick with coronavirus is that doing so would be “a fundamental threat to the continued viability of the workers’ compensation system in our state.”

However, the workers’ compensation system is a limited recovery system. Workers who contract COVID-19 while on the job would be eligible for 2/3 of their lost wages as well as medical expenses without going through extensive and costly litigation.

House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, who is sponsoring the bill, said the proposed legislation provides important protections for those front-line workers who face the greatest risk of contracting the virus. Other states, such as California, have proposed similar legislation to make it easier for people who get sick with coronavirus on the job to receive benefits. States can include sunset provisions, which would expire any rebuttal presumption once the pandemic is over, without fundamentally changing or damaging workers’ compensation.

The burden of providing healthcare, protections, and other employment benefits to essential workers should not fall solely on taxpayers or sickened workers. Businesses must do their part to protect and provide for these vital employees.

An alternative to the bill would include employers creating internal protocol for providing protections to their employees. For instance, some hospital systems are providing paid leave for every employee who contracts COVID-19, as well as payment of their medicals.

“Every night, I see commercials talking about and thanking our heroes,” N.C. Rep. Jackson told WRAL. “It’s time to make sure they are protected.”

Without creating this rebuttable presumption, employees who contract COVID-19 will still be allowed to file a claim for benefits under workers’ compensation, however, they would not be entitled to a presumption of causation. Without a presumption of causation, it is highly likely that the claim would be denied, and the employee would be required to engage in costly and prolonged litigation to recover their damages. In most cases of COVID-19, those damages may be a few weeks of benefits at most.

North Carolina first responders, health care workers, retail workers, delivery drivers and other essential employees deserve these protections. We encourage you to contact your state representatives and senators and ask them to support House Bill 1057. You can find out who represents you here. You’ll also find contact information for your state representatives and senators through that link.

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