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COVID-19 and Workers’ Compensation

Exposure to the Coronavirus, development of COVID-19 and workers’ compensation can be connected. In some cases, workers with COVID-19 may be able to file a workers’ compensation claim in Washington State. Allowance of a claim is possible as an occupational disease according to the Department of Labor and Industries, which generally means that there must be something “distinctive” about the type of employment in which the individual is exposed to the virus (as opposed to simply a coincidental exposure).

COVID-19 Pandemic is Ongoing in Washington State

The Coronavirus is highly contagious and easily transmissible. It is now present throughout the country, with some areas more saturated than others. Although the overall case numbers in Washington State are better than many other states, we have not yet bent the curve to bring case numbers down to baseline. Instead, most areas are holding steady in the mid-range of our case numbers. Some areas, such as Yakima County, remain hotspots.

Governor Inslee recently visited Yakima County to address the county’s high rate of infection. The rate of transmission reflects the number of people each infected person would be expected to transmit the virus to, with a rate of 1 or fewer allowing for a decline in cases or over 1 an expansion of cases.

The Yakima Health District said that Yakima County’s transmission rate was 2 to 2.5 while Western Washington’s rate is under 1, according to reporting by the Yakima Herald. The rate of COVID-19 spread in Yakima County is 27 times that of King County, the state’s largest county, per the Governor’s press release about his visit.

Yakima County Encourages Taking Precautions to Reduce the Spread of the Coronavirus.

Governor Inslee recently announced that he intended to make mask-wearing mandatory in Yakima County to help curb the spread of COVID-19. No word yet as to how Yakima County’s “constitutional sheriff” Robert Udell will enforce a mask-wearing order, which he has previously suggested would violate some inchoate constitutional provision.

In King County, where our firm is located, we have only just entered Phase Two of reopening. Our case numbers have ticked back up a bit in recent days. Steps are being taken here to reinforce the message that precautions still need to be taken as more businesses reopen.

Occupational Disease Claims Explained

An occupational disease claim covers workers who develop a health condition due to exposure to substances, diseases, or injurious conditions on the job. An occupational disease claim can cover a variety of conditions that result from repetitive micro-traumas, such as physical injuries due to overuse, exposures to infectious agents, or exposures to toxic substances.

In order for such a claim to be allowed, the Department of Labor and Industries needs to find that the claimed medical condition resulted from exposure on the job, on a more-probable-than-not basis. In addition, that exposure must be due to “distinctive conditions” of employment. This does not necessarily mean that there is a higher prevalence of an injury or medical condition arising from your type of employment than there is in the general labor market overall, just that some distinctive aspect of your job led to the exposure/overexertion.

As an example, nurses and other medical professionals are exposed to various diseases and infections on a daily basis, in spite of the numerous precautions against infection taken by hospitals and doctors’ offices to prevent the spread of disease. Conversely, many people in all walks of life may be exposed to individuals with transmissible diseases or infections, but in the case of the medical professional, their job distinctly places them in the path of infection as compared to the general public or all employments generally.

Coronavirus, COVID-19 and Workers’ Compensation Claims

Workers with significant exposures on-the-job, or with specific conditions of their employment exposing them to the virus, could file a claim and potentially receive benefits. With exposure to the Coronavirus rather commonplace within our communities, the connection between work exposure and development of COVID-19 must be direct and clear in order for a claim to be allowed. In the case of the Coronavirus, while you do not necessarily need to identify the specific patient or person to whom you were exposed, the ability to show that your job involved exposure to known cases of the virus would probably be required.

Washington State has issued guidance for the Department of Labor and Industries (DLI) that there should be a presumption that the onset of COVID-19 is related to work exposures for some frontline workers, including healthcare workers and medical professionals. If a period of quarantine is medically necessary, the workers’ compensation claim would pay time loss compensation for these workers, even if they are not ill, for up to 14 days.

Other frontline workers, especially those performing essential services in high-risk environments, could also be entitled to benefits under a workers’ compensation claim. For claimants working in jobs not explicitly covered under the presumption of work relatedness, each claim will be reviewed on an individual, case-by-case basis. Specific criteria must be met for a claim to be allowed.

Unfortunately, although DLI’s guidance is great news for frontline healthcare workers, for most other people the guidance incorrectly states the legal standard for allowing an occupational disease claim. For instance, DLI suggests that there must be “an increased risk or greater likelihood of contracting the condition” in the person’s particular employment. The Washington State Supreme Court has rejected the “increased risk” test (elsewhere referred to as the “positional risk” doctrine) in several cases, most recently in Street v. Weyerhaeuser, 189 Wn. 2d 187, 200-01 (2018).

If you believe you have been exposed to the Coronavirus and developed COVID-19 due to an on-the-job exposure, you should contact an attorney. If you have questions about COVID-19 and workers’ compensation, our firm is available to assist you.

Benefits Under a Workers’ Compensation Claim

The benefits available would include time loss compensation for the days the worker is unable to work due to quarantine or illness. The claim would cover the cost of allowed medical treatment. In many cases, if there is no onset of symptoms or recovery from illness happens quickly, there may be relatively little compensation paid under a claim.

In some cases, people face hospitalization and extended periods of recovery. In King County, current data shows that 16.8% of positive cases require hospitalization. The King County daily summary dashboard provides statistics about testing numbers and rates for positive results, hospitalizations and deaths. The graph displays data for the county overall as well as by city. Closer inspection reveals that the rates for positive test results, hospitalizations and deaths are better – and worse – in different parts of the county.

Medical expenses can quickly add up, and time lost from work may be greater than one would expect.

Permanent Impairment After COVID-19

In most cases, there are no lasting effects that remain after recovery from COVID-19. However, it is now becoming clear that there can be permanent effects from COVID-19 in some cases, even for people who recover without the need for hospitalization.

If there is permanent residual impairment after COVID-19, an allowed workers’ compensation claim would provide a monetary impairment award once the claim closes. The most common reported permanent effects are connected to impaired lung function. There are also reports of stroke, kidney, liver and heart conditions that remain after recovery from COVID-19.

Impairment awards paid at claim closure are based on ratings of permanent impairment made by a physician. For injury to internal organs, the State uses a category system for rating impairment. Each category relates to a set of symptoms present, with higher categories compensating for higher levels of impairment due to greater loss of function.

In the rare case where death results, the worker’s family could receive a burial benefit and compensation for the loss of life due to the work exposure and illness.

Filing a Claim for COVID-19

For those that are diagnosed with COVID-19 that were significantly exposed to the Coronavirus on-the-job, a claim may be filed with the Department of Labor and Industries. A claim can be filed:

  • Online via DLI’s FileFast tool.
  • By phone: 1-877-561-3453 (FILE).
  • At your doctor’s office (if you complete the Report of Accident at your doctor’s office, the doctor files the form for you).

You can watch a DLI video that generally describes the process for filing a claim if you need more information about the steps to be taken.

More Information and Resources

DLI has a page of information and links to resources dedicated to answering questions about COVID-19 and workers’ compensation. This includes questions raised by employers and businesses, injured workers whose non-COVID claims have been impacted by the social changes brought on by the virus, as well as workers who believe they have developed COVID-19 through work exposure.

The Washington Department of Health has a COVID-19 Information Line: 1-800-525-0127. Phone lines are staffed from 6 am – 10 pm. Interpreter services are available in multiple languages.

Our intent in sharing this information is not to spur a flood of baseless claim filing. The truth is that exposure to the Coronavirus on the job could have a significant impact on a worker and their family. In those rare circumstances where the facts line up to support allowance of a claim, the benefits available under a workers’ compensation claim could help to alleviate this impact.

If you have questions about COVID-19 and workers’ compensation, or if your claim was denied, please feel free to contact our firm. We offer a free case analysis, and would be happy to discuss your specific circumstances with you.

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