Presently there are many uncertainties surrounding the coronavirus outbreak. It is certainly possible employees will allege they contracted coronavirus while at work. Given that the United States has not experienced a pandemic in a significant period of time, this is a gray area for employers. Most states do not have specific legislation addressing this situation.
In general, any illness, injury or occupational disease could be a compensable claim if it arises out of the course and scope of the employee’s employment. The difficulty is that it is likely impossible to determine with certainty as to where the employee contracted the disease. Workplaces with significant public contact may see a rise in such claim applications.
The coronavirus is not a typical “injury,” but rather would be analyzed under a claim for an “occupational disease.” To be an occupational disease, an employee must generally demonstrate that the illness arose out of employment and that the illness arose out of conditions specific to the workplace that create a higher risk of contracting the disease than exposure to the general public. As with other workers’ compensation claim applications, an employee will still be required to present medical evidence providing a causal relationship between the disease and their workplace environment.
Employers may contest an employee’s claim seeking workers’ compensation benefits for a coronavirus infection. Employers may challenge the claim based on a lack of a causal relationship establishing where the employee contracted the disease, if there is evidence of an alternative means of exposure, and/or if the employee’s medical evidence is speculative.
First responders and health care workers are more likely to have a compensable claim than many other types of employees. As this disease progresses through the United States, it is also possible that states will enact specific legislation to address this novel situation. For instance, Washington Governor Jay Inslee has directed his Department of Labor and Industries to “ensure” workers’ compensation protections for health care workers and first responders. Governor Inslee requested that new policies provide benefits to employees while they are quarantined after being exposed to the virus at work. It is possible other states will follow.
Our attorneys across multiple practice areas are available to assist employers in navigating legal issues relating to coronavirus.