For many of us, social distancing and staying home to avoid getting sick is more than enough stress. As we try to re-open our economy, more and more of us face the prospect of returning to work and potential increased risk for exposure. Of course our most essential workers, including doctors, nurses, police and many others never stopped working.
So what happens when you are exposed to coronavirus at work? Will your COVID-19 diagnosis be covered by Workers’ Compensation?
Like a lot of life in the past few months, there are not necessarily easy answers to these important questions. Let’s examine what we know and what we don’t.
In Maryland, the workers’ compensation system fundamentally places the burden of proof on the injured worker. Only claims that more likely than not arise out of and occur in the course of employment are covered. This means that the worker must establish that they probably contracted the virus because of their job and while doing their job. With a broken arm or a sprained ankle, that is often pretty straightforward. Not so simple with an invisible virus.
The best advice I have for anyone who believes they contracted the virus due to their employment is to immediately get any necessary medical attention and be sure to advise both their employer and their treatment providers of the work-related nature of their exposure. Protecting your legal rights is important, but nothing is more important than your health. Fortunately, taking steps to protect your health can also strengthen your legal claim because the medical records will be essential evidence in any disputed claim.
Like any legal claim, the facts and circumstances make all the difference. For front line workers, the nature of their employment should make a workers’ compensation claim for COVID-19 run more smoothly specifically because of the inherent risk of the job. When someone spends 8, 10, 12 hours a day or more interacting with folks who already have the virus and only go home to get some sleep before getting up and doing it all over again, their job is clearly the most likely source when they get the virus themselves. The legal landscape gets murkier where there are other likely sources, such as for folks who use public transportation to get to work or live with others who may have exposed them to the virus.
Competent legal counsel to help protect your rights is essential, if you believe you contracted the virus at work. Unfortunately, because the virus is so new, so is the litigation of these cases. While some cases have been accepted, others are contested and still need to be litigated before the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission. In some other parts of the country, there can be a legal presumption that the virus was obtained at work to protect essential workers, but that is not currently the law in Maryland. With regard to the available benefits, a claim for COVID-19 is no different than any other workers’ compensation claim. An accepted claim should mean 100% of the medical bills get paid and you can be paid for lost wages (for a further discussion of workers’ compensation basics, check out my previous post.)
Finally, another common concern is for individuals who had potential exposure to the virus and have been quarantined without receiving a positive diagnosis. Those folks are missing work, but unless they get a positive test result confirming the diagnosis, they probably do NOT have a compensable workers’ comp claim. Fortunately, my experience so far has been that essential government employees forced to miss work because of the virus, with or without a positive diagnosis, have been paid accident or administrative leave rather than having to burn their own sick/personal leave. However, as the economy restarts and more and more of us return to work, I expect more litigation about these claims, not less.