Employees who contract COVID-19 may need to miss time from work. They may be able to apply for workers’ compensation benefits in some situations. However, the rules governing the workers’ compensation system may pose challenges to an employee seeking benefits. This is because workers’ compensation benefits for an occupational disease are usually available only if the employee contracted the disease while working, and the nature of their job put them at higher risk than the general population. You can read more here about the workers’ compensation system.
Health care workers and first responders who contracted COVID-19 from patients as part of their jobs likely will be able to recover workers’ compensation benefits. However, most businesses outside the health care industry do not expose an employee to an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19 as part of the nature of the job. They would be just as likely to contract the virus in their ordinary activities as they would in the workplace, and they might struggle to prove that the specific exposure that caused their infection occurred on the job.
Presumption of Coverage for Workers in High-Risk Jobs
In some states, workers in high-risk fields may be entitled to a presumption that they are eligible for workers’ compensation benefits if they contract the virus. These may include not only health care workers and emergency medical technicians but also police officers, firefighters, ambulance workers, and other people whose jobs involve protecting public safety. When a presumption applies, the employer or its workers’ compensation insurer will need to prove that the employee’s illness was not related to their job to deny benefits.
Due to the distinctive nature of the COVID-19 outbreak, states may eventually extend this presumption to employees in certain other fields. These may include airport workers, grocery store workers, and other employees of essential businesses that must remain open during the outbreak. Their jobs put them at higher risk than an ordinary person because they are exempted from shelter-in-place orders, which require most people to stay at home. For example, California has made workers' compensation benefits available to all essential workers who have been infected with COVID-19.
Exposure Arising From Dangerous Workplace Conditions
The nature of certain workplaces may expose an employee to a greater risk of contracting the virus, even though their occupation does not pose an elevated risk. For example, an employer might require employees to work in closer proximity than social distancing guidelines permit. This might result in COVID-19 spreading through the workplace, due to the employer’s unsafe policy. Different states have responded differently to the question of whether an employee will be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits in this situation. An employee should consult an attorney or explore the law in their state to understand their options.
Alternatives to Workers’ Compensation Benefits
While many employees who contract COVID-19 will not be able to receive workers’ compensation benefits, they may be able to pursue other types of benefits. These include paid sick leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, in addition to short-term disability benefits. An employee may have a short-term disability policy through their employer, or they may have an individual policy. COVID-19 patients typically do not suffer from symptoms for many months, so an employee should not worry about relying on benefits for a long time. For the same reason, they likely will not be eligible for Social Security Disability benefits through the federal government.