Posted on Friday, May 15th, 2020 at 8:42 am
The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting every type of worker. Some work such as healthcare and delivery service work has been deemed essential by the Governor of North Carolina. Other work has been categorized as non-essential. Governor Cooper has issued a new Executive Order essentially placing North Carolina into Phase 1 of Re-opening, while still engaging in social distancing, testing, and possibly contact tracing.
Meanwhile, the pandemic is spreading through the state and the world. It is affecting nursing home residents and the elderly more than any other groups. Nurses, doctors, EMT personnel, ambulance service workers, and other health care professionals are at high risk for contracting the virus because they work with so many patients who already have the disease and because the disease is easily transported. Workers who deliver products to our homes are also at risk every time they touch a doorknob, pick up a package, or come into contact with other people.
I recently covered this issue in a couple of short, informal cell phone videos I did for Virginia Workers’ Compensation benefits, namely, if a healthcare worker gets ill from COVID-19 on the job, does he or she have a valid workers compensation case?
The answer, unfortunately for Virginia Workers, is while technically they may have a case, the real answer is that the level of proof required for an “ordinary disease of life” such as becoming ill from COVID-19 is so high that it will result in all cases being denied by insurance companies. So while a sick healthcare worker may be gasping for air on a ventilator, unable to work and facing thousands in healthcare costs, assuming he survives, the worker’s compensation insurance company will be denying payment for the claim, saying the sick worker has contracted an “ordinary disease of life,” cannot prove it came from work, and has therefore no case.
And of course, this is an outrageous situation, and that is why I did another video urging all citizens to call and email their State Representatives to get legislation passed that will protect our most cherished heroes—our healthcare workers who are battling this terrible virus.
So is the situation any better in North Carolina? Workers in North Carolina are entitled to work injury benefits (partial pay and medical bills among other benefits) if they are injured while doing their job. Workers are also entitled to benefits if they meet the statutory definition of an occupational illness.
Whether a worker who develops COVID-19 can request North Carolina workers’ compensation benefits is currently an open question, but unfortunately, it does Eligibility may depend largely on whether the worker was an “essential” worker and on other factors.
The North Carolina statute provides in North Carolina General Statute Section 97-53 that many specific diseases are considered occupational diseases. A few of these specific examples include anthrax, various types of poisoning (brass, zinc, lead, and manganese to name a few), bursitis due to intermittent pressure in the employment, and other illnesses listed in the statute.
If an injured worker contracts one of the specific diseases listed in the statute, then the injured worker is generally going to be able to obtain work injury benefits when a disease or illness is specifically listed such as lead poisoning. If a disease is listed, then there is a presumption (which can be rebutted) that the worker developed the occupational disease through work.
One possible avenue for recovery for workers’ compensation benefits for any worker who develops COVID-19 would be for the Legislature in Raleigh to consider adding COVID-19 to its list of specific diseases, or simply to create a special presumption that any healthcare worker who becomes ill from COVID-19, has a compensable claim.
But under the current law, COVID-19 is not specifically listed in the statute; however, the statute also has a broad definition that may cover COVID-19:
Item 13. “Any disease, other than hearing loss covered in another subdivision of this section, which is proven to be due to causes and conditions which are characteristic of and peculiar to a particular trade, occupation or employment, but excluding all ordinary diseases of life to which the general public is equally exposed outside of the employment.”
This definition in my opinion is slightly more liberal than Virginia; however, because it would still term COVID-19 an “ordinary disease of life,” the burden would remain on the worker to show not only that he or she was at increased risk of contracting the disease for the type of work performed but that the exposure at work was far higher than that of the general public. This may prove particularly challenging in light of the fact that we are in a pandemic, meaning that almost everyone runs the risk of exposure to the virus.
For COVID-19, coronavirus cases, under the current statutory scheme, the employee would need to focus on showing that the there was a greatly increased risk of contracting the disease for the type of work the employee did – as compared to the risk to the general public. Since everyone is at risk for contracting the disease, the focus will need to be on showing the worker’s job created a significantly increased danger.
The problem is, of course, that just like Virginia, as a practical matter, this places an immediate burden on the employee and most likely guarantees that virtually anyone bringing a COVID-19 Workers Compensation case is going to be denied by the insurance company and have to head to hearing. This is certainly not something that anyone struggling to breathe on a ventilator is going to be able to deal with.
Moreover, you need look no further than the marketing efforts of defense firms in North Carolina to see how difficult this will prove to be for workers who contract COVID-19 illness.
At least one well-known North Carolina Defense Firm has already laid out its legal strategy for defending any COVID-19 Claim, online, stating “In a pandemic, regardless of the employee’s employment, it seems unlikely that an employee will be able to establish, through lay evidence, where COVID-19 was contracted, or that the employee will be able to rule out, through lay evidence, where COVID-19 was not contracted.” This means they will force employees to prove that the disease was not contracted in just about every location except work, essentially an almost impossible task.
One of the ways experienced North Carolina occupational illness lawyers may use to help provide the worker’s job included and increased risk is through the Governor’s Order which identifies some jobs as “essential”. Any work that is essential means workers are also going to likely have more contact with people, packages, and items that may be contagious.
Some of the jobs identified by Governor Roy Cooer as essential, in his March 27, 2020 Executive Order are:
That being said, in my opinion, under the current statutory scheme, the only workers who have a shot at prevailing would be healthcare workers whose jobs put them at extremely high risk insofar as exposure to COVID-19, such as those testing people for COVID-19, those treating positive COVID patients, and possibly workers in nursing care facilities which are known to have very high rates of infection.
Still, the current statutory scheme will likely guarantee that the claim be denied, although the employer will have the option—if they are feeling generous—of paying some parts of the claim on a non-prejudicial basis, meaning they can choose to deny it later.
Is that unfair? Of course it is! How can we possibly treat our heroes this way?
But there is GOOD NEWS!
The North Carolina General Assembly is Considering a Proposed Bill to Fix the very unfair Situation
The good news is that the North Carolina Legislature has followed a number of other states and currently has under consideration House Bill 1057, which would provide a presumption that not only first responders and other healthcare workers, but anyone considered “essential” by the Governor’s Order, due to a pandemic disease would be entitled to workers compensation benefits. The presumption is rebuttable only by clear and convincing evidence.
At this writing, the bill is not yet in its final form, but hopefully, the Legislature in Raleigh will act with speed and pass this very important law. See the current version of House Bill 1057.
Workers who develop an occupational illness are generally entitled to the following work injury benefits:
Just one day and one night in an ICU unit can run tens of thousands of dollars. The amount of the payment for medical costs may be adjusted depending on whether the employee has other health insurance benefits.
North Virginia workers’ compensation lawyer Joe Miller Esq. is keeping current with the changes to state work injury laws due to COVID-19. He is working (often, remotely) to speak with clients and to process work injury claims. He has helped thousands of injured workers and workers with occupational illnesses get the just benefits they deserve. For any questions about COVID-19, please phone Joe Miller, Esq., at 888-694-1671 or fill out my online contact form to speak with an experienced work injury lawyer.
Posted on Tuesday, May 5th, 2020 at 8:43 am
Virginia Workers Compensation Attorney Joe Miller here urges all citizens of the Commonwealth to contact their State Senators and Delegates and urge them to pass legislation that enables any Healthcare worker who gets sick with COVID-19 to seek benefits under the Virginia Workers Compensation System. We need a law that creates a presumption that any Healthcare worker who is exposed to COVID-19 as part of their job got it at work and therefore has a compensable claim. Under the laws in Virginia as they exist now, it is virtually impossible for a Healthcare worker who becomes ill from COVID-19 to obtain any benefits under our workers compensation system. This is because it is a virus and therefore considered an “ordinary disease of life.” Isn’t this the least we can do for these brave heroes who put themselves and their loved ones at risk each day by helping us battle this terrible, invisible enemy? Please contact your State Delegate and Senator NOW while they are in session. The Governor could also issue an Executive Order.. Several other states have already recognized this problem and provided workers compensation presumptions for their Healthcare workers. Virginia needs to get on board.
Posted on Thursday, March 26th, 2020 at 11:10 am
Clearly many folks are concerned right now about the effect on their weekly compensation checks of any potential layoff of themselves and their fellow employees at work or company closures due to the severe economic downturn and mandatory closures related to the Coronavirus.
This is a very important question right now and also this particular question regarding layoffs happens to be an evolving and very active area of VA Workers Comp law.
The short answer is if you are currently under an ongoing, finalized Award for benefits, meaning an Award for weekly checks for either Temporary Total or Temporary Partial Disability, then NO, you will not lose your benefits; however, if you are NOT under an Award yet and your position is permanently eliminated or the layoffs are clearly permanent with no chance of re-hiring, then you will likely have a very difficult time of trying to obtain comp check benefits from the date of such layoff forward. You may only be able to claim benefits up until the date of the layoff. It’s not impossible to prove ongoing benefits in a permanent layoff situation, but you will be required to rise to a very high level of proof to show that your inability to obtain a job is due to your disability and not just to your job being eliminated permanently.
That being said, if the layoff is only temporary—as many will likely be in our current situation—then if you are not under an Award and on light duty, you would still be able to claim benefits; however, you would need to engage in active marketing of your residual capacity to work in order to prove your inability to find a job. And of course, you will likely end up at a Workers Comp Commission Hearing to prove you engaged in adequate marketing.
Of course, those held out of work 100% by their doctors due to their work injuries and have the physician’s work notes to prove it would not need to prove marketing.
If this all seems confusing, I encourage you to first see my video on the importance of being under an Open or Ongoing Award for benefits in Virginia. It’s important to understand what an Award accomplishes for you in Virginia.
So why is someone under an ongoing or Open Award in a better position compared to someone who is not in a layoff situation?
It’s because when you’re under an ongoing Award, that Award is a proclamation or Order by the Virginia Workers Compensation Commission that you are entitled to the weekly benefits stated in that Order on an ongoing basis, until proven otherwise by the defense. In other words, you have met your burden and you have won your case. Many times, the Award occurs due to an Award agreement, but the result is the same—once that Award has been entered by the Commission and the 30 day appeal period has passed, the Order is Final and you have won.
When you have an ongoing or Open Award for weekly benefits, it becomes the defense’s burden to prove you’ve been returned to full duty and that you are capable of performing your pre-injury work if they want to get out of paying you those weekly benefits. There are a few other ways for them to stop the Award, such as failure to comply with medical treatment or vocational rehabilitation, but they’re not relevant to our discussion right now.
If the defense cannot prove you are capable of a return to full duty, then you are going to remain under your ongoing Award and they still have to pay you your ongoing, weekly benefits even during the layoff and even if the layoff is permanent.
Now what about folks who are not under an Award yet, but are trying to prove one?
The case law is clear that for folks who are not yet under an Award, the difficulty of proving you are entitled to benefits really depends on whether the layoff is temporary or permanent.
This is because an injured worker who is not yet under an Award has no Order from the Commission regarding anything. Nothing has yet been proven, so the burden of proof remains on the injured worker to show he or she is entitled to benefits.
In a temporary layoff situation, if you are on light duty, assuming your employer does not accept you back at light duty status, so long as you are able to prove sufficient marketing of your residual capacity to work (i.e. looking for work elsewhere within your physical restrictions) during the temporary layoff, you should be able to prove you’re entitled to benefits. Of course, you will likely have to go to Hearing to prove that.
Again, if you are in a temporary layoff, and your authorized treating physician has you out 100% due to your injuries, then since you currently have no residual capacity to work per your doctor, you do not have to market or look for work. You would only need to prove your total incapacity with your doctor’s work notes and office notes.
Unfortunately, for those of you whose positions are eliminated and are fully and permanently laid off along with your coworkers, if you are on light duty and not yet under an Award, you will unfortunately find it much more difficult to be able to claim ongoing weekly workers comp benefits. The case law in such circumstance requires a higher level of proof to show that your economic loss is due to your injury and not the elimination of your job.
The Commissioners and Judges have reasoned in the case law that since you don’t yet have an Award, and your job has been eliminated, the burden is on you to prove economic loss due to your work injuries. And since the burden is on you for proof and since the reason you don’t have a job is because your job was permanently eliminated, then you need to prove your economic loss is actually related to your work injuries and not just the fact that your job does not exist any longer. In such cases, just doing the marketing/looking for light duty work as usual is probably not enough. There needs to be proof that not only can you not find a job, but the reason you cannot find a job is because of your work restrictions as set forth by your treating doctor. If you don’t have such proof, then the Commission will find that the loss is not related to your work injury. They will find that it is related to the fact that your job no longer exists.
Such proof may be through the hiring of an expert such as a vocational rehabilitation expert, and/or through some kind of testimony or other evidence from one or more of the potential employers where you applied that you could not be hired because your work restrictions could not be accommodated.
We think that the decision by the Court of Appeals back in 2016 which raised the standard of proof for permanently laid off employees was wrong and a harsh result, and in fact there were strong dissents by Judges on the case, but unfortunately those Judges were outvoted and that is the law in Virginia.
The only good news is that in many of the Full Commission decisions that have followed this 2016 Court of Appeals Case, the Commission has gone to great lengths to say it does not apply to the situation at hand. Clearly, the Full Commission also feels the Court of Appeals went too far and takes every opportunity to try to limit the harsh effects of that decision.
Also, just to be 100% clear, it is very important to distinguish between an Open or Ongoing Award and a Closed Award. A Closed Award is for some past period of weekly payments that has now ended because you have returned to work. Although such an Award contains a lifetime medical benefit and is also evidence that your claim is compensable (meaning there is no longer a defense that you did not have a legitimate, on-the-job injury) in terms of attempting to get your checks started again because you have been laid off, it’s almost like have no Award at all. In other words, if you’re on light duty, you would have to prove it’s a temporary layoff and you would have to prove marketing just like the folks with no Award at all. And just like those folks, you would not be able to prove any entitlement to ongoing checks if your layoff became permanent.
We hope this article has been helpful.
From all of us here at Joe Miller Law/The Work Injury Center, please stay safe, please follow the CDC COVID-19 Guidelines for prevention, and God Willing we will all get through this safely together.
Attorney Joe Miller has been representing injured workers in Virginia and North Carolina for over 32 years. If you have any questions about a worker’s compensation injury incurred by you or a loved one, please do not hesitate to reach out to us at 888-694-1671 or fill out our online contact form
Please do not wait to contact us, as there are time deadlines for filing your claim. If you fail to meet those deadlines, your right to benefits will be forever lost.
Posted on Thursday, March 19th, 2020 at 2:24 pm
Virginia and North Carolina Workers Compensation Attorney Joe Miller here explains why with some possible exceptions, it is unlikely that you would be able to pursue a compensable claim based on your contraction of the COVID-19 or Coronavirus at work. The possible exception might be someone whose sole job is to treat patients who are known to be infected with the virus, or test people for infection with the Coronavirus. Even then, it would be challenging.