COVID-19 heroes must jump through hoops for workers

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Praised for their service and hailed as everyday heroes, the essential workers who put the coronavirus to work have no guarantee in most states that they will be eligible for workers’ compensation to cover wages and care lost medical.

Less than a third of states have policies that shift the burden of proof to cover job-related COVID-19 so that workers such as first responders and nurses do not have to prove fell ill while presenting for a risky assignment.

The debate over the makeup of workers in the states is part of a much broader national discussion of responsibility for exposure to viruses, as Republicans in Congress seek a broad shield for businesses in the next relief bill. against coronaviruses.

Medical staff work in the emergency department of NYC Health + Hospitals Metropolitan in May 2020. (Photo AP / John Minchillo)

And for most workers who return to construction sites for economic recovery, protection is even less than for essential workers. In almost all states, they have to prove they caught the virus on the job to qualify for workers.

Nurse Dori Harrington of Manchester, Connecticut, said she had obtained COVID-19 caring for infected patients in a nursing home, with limited protective equipment. Harrington was seriously ill and missed five weeks of work, but his workers’ compensation claim was initially denied on the grounds that his illness was “neither associated nor particular” to his work.

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“It’s great to be appreciated, but we also have to take care of it,” said Harrington, who ultimately won his claim with union help. “No one should have to fight for care when he was just doing his job taking care of others. It is unpleasant for me. ”

Workers’ compensation is not health insurance or unemployment benefit. The state-level $ 56 billion insurance system is one of the oldest forms of social contract in the country. In exchange for coverage, workers give up the right to sue their employers for work-related injuries. Employers pay premiums to support the system. The complex rules differ from state to state.

Pas Simpson, left, and Hasshan Batts, right, of Promise Neighborhoods in the Lehigh Valley, a community group, load a truckload of hot meals for delivery to those in need. (Photo AP / Matt Rourke)

Treating work-related injuries is fairly straightforward, but illnesses have always been more sensitive to workers, and COVID-19 seems to be in a class of its own.

“You don’t know where you breathed the breath that infected you,” said Bill Smith, president of the Workers ‘Injury Law & Advocacy Group, or WILG, a professional association of workers’ lawyers.

However, you can still draw a logical conclusion, says Michael Duff, professor of labor law at the University of Wyoming.

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“When you talk about certain types of front line workers in the trenches, day after day, this person starts to look like the coal miner who is regularly exposed to a dangerous health condition because of his job,” he said. -he explains.

Think of clinical staff in hospitals and nursing homes, first responders and meat packaging workers, among others.

Recognizing such realities, more than a dozen states have enacted policies known as “presumptions” that exempt essential workers like Dori Harrington, the Connecticut nurse, from having to prove how they actually got COVID- 19 at work.

Emergency medical technicians move patient from nursing home to emergency room bed at St. Joseph Hospital in Yonkers, NY (AP Photo / John Minchillo, File)

The list includes liberal states like California and conservative states like Kentucky, according to WILG, the lawyer group. California’s policy stands out because it protects all workers, not just those on the front lines.

At the federal level, there is an effort to protect workers in the Transportation Security Administration and the Postal Service.

Duff predicts that most states will be reluctant to extend protections.

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The issue involves significant costs and fierce lobbying. It pits workers, groups of workers, lawyers and social protection advocates against employers, insurers, and even local and state governments that employ front-line workers.

In Colorado, a campaign to enact a presumption of COVID-19 for essential workers has stalled in the legislature due to cost concerns.

“At a time when the disease is spreading in the community like this, it is not appropriate for a workers’ compensation system to act as a public safety net,” said Edie Sonn, public affairs officer. from Pinnacol Insurance, Colorado’s largest workers’ compensation insurer. , who opposed the effort.

Some companies would have seen their premiums increase by up to 27%, she added.

A worker wears a face mask in an Agostino supermarket as New York City enters phase 2 of reopening. (Photo by Noam Galai / Getty Images)

Industry expert Stefan Holzberger of the rating agency AM Best said there is a risk of significant loss for salaried insurers, but there are also potential mitigating factors. The result is not yet clear.

“From what we see so far, the average cost of claims associated with a COVID-19 claim is less than the loss associated with a standard claim for workers,” said Holzberger. “Going to the hospital and having a test is much less than having neck or back surgery.”

Another mitigating factor: workplace accidents fell considerably during the economic closure.

For essential workers who have received COVID-19 and who have suffered from fever, fatigue, shortness of breath, coughing and other symptoms, refusal or acceptance of a workers’ compensation claim may have a profound impact.

Fire alarm inspector Kenneth Larkin of Montevallo, Alberta, said he was pushed back by his former employer when he asked workers to take a coronavirus test. He fell ill shortly after inspecting a hospital’s COVID-19 wing systems.

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“I think a number of workers are mean because they want to take care of themselves,” said Larkin, who has retained a lawyer. “It is difficult for me as a human being to swallow this, when you place the value of a person’s health less than the cost of a test. ”

But nurse Debbie Koehler from Warren, Ohio, said she felt validated when her claim was accepted by the insurer at the rehabilitation hospital where she works.

“It’s just knowing that my employer is actively admitting that this has happened and is paying for my therapy,” she said.

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