Are essential workers and others who are exposed to COVID-19 on the job able to receive workers’ compensation benefits if they become sick?
The answer to that question is a complicated one, especially here in North Carolina.
Some states have enacted legislation or implemented special rules to ensure workers’ comp coverage for first responders, health care workers and other essential workers who get sick from coronavirus. A bill that would have offered the same protection to North Carolina workers never made it out of committee.
So, what does that mean for grocery store workers, nurses, teachers and others who contract COVID-19 at work? Is COVID-19 considered an occupational disease under state law?
Workers who become sick now have the burden of proving their infection occurred in the workplace if they want to be successful in their workers’ comp claim. The failed legislation would have created a “rebuttable presumption” that would have extended workers’ comp benefits to sick workers unless the employer could prove the employee was infected elsewhere.
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.
Generally, workers’ compensation does not apply in cases of community-spread diseases, such as a cold or the flu, because infection usually cannot be directly tied to the workplace.
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 that the proposed legislation would have provided.
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.
For others, however, physical recovery from COVID-19 may take much longer and the health effects may be longer lasting. Some people may find themselves out of work for long periods of time because of coronavirus and related illnesses.
Thankfully, some businesses are doing part to protect and provide for employees who become sick. Some hospital systems are providing paid leave for every employee who contracts COVID-19, as well as payment of their medicals.
Full- and part-time employees also are entitled to paid sick time under the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (EPSLA), which is part of the new Families First Coronavirus Response Act. (You can read more about that in my colleague Seth Cohen’s article about COVID-19 and employment issues. )
If you contracted coronavirus at work and are dealing with the medical and financial consequences of that, you may be entitled to legal benefits. Our attorneys and staff can help protect your legal rights and determine the best course of action for your particular case and circumstances.
Virtual Workers’ Comp Mediations & Hearings
The N.C. Industrial Commission has begun holding some in-person workers’ compensation hearings in limited cases. For the safety of our clients and employees, we continue to advocate for virtual hearings and mediations.
If you have an upcoming workers’ comp hearing or mediation, we will work to make sure these proceedings happen in the safest way possible, without jeopardizing anyone’s health or legal outcomes. If you have questions or concerns, feel free to contact us.