Health Care Workers and Workers’ Compensation Benefits – in the Age of COVID-19

Posted on Wednesday, May 27th, 2020 at 3:20 pm    

Nurses are on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, They are helping out in ICU rooms, emergency rooms, and the rooms where patients are trying to stay alive on ventilators. They’re helping out with testing patients for the coronavirus with swabs and by other means.

These new duties are in addition to their regular duties of helping to prepare patients for surgery and participating in surgeries. Nurses help patents recover by monitoring their systems and giving patients their medications, Nurses also provide a variety of physical and emotional tasks such as:

  • Moving the patients
  • Helping the patients walk and go to the bathroom
  • Repositioning patients in their beds
  • Changing the bed sheets

 

Other duties that nurses with more advance training and certifications perform include:

 

  • Speaking with family members
  • Treating the patient under a physician’s order
  • Helping with diagnostic tests
  • Recording the patient’s signs, symptoms, aches, and pains

 

In addition to certified nurses, there are registered nurses, nurse practitioners, critical care nurses, and other types of nurses.

Many nurses work in hospitals. Nurses also work in nursing home facilities, retirement facilities, assisted living facilities, a physician’s office, ambulatory surgery centers, and other outpatient facilities. Some nurses provide home health care

Nurses and workplace accidents

Nurses often suffer one or more of the following types of accidents during their lifetime”

  • Overexertion injuries. Nurses regularly lift patients move them, transfer them to other rooms, and push them while they’re in wheelchairs. They also reach for objects, handle and move medical equipment, and carry medical tools. All these exertions can cause a nurse to wrench a back, twist an ankle, sprain their neck, or cause fractures, soft tissue injuries, ligament damage, and other injuries that require time off from work.
  • Slips and falls. Nurses concentrate on their patients and their tasks. They don’t always look down at the ground as they walk or move. It’s easy to trip over wires, slip on wet surfaces, trip over objects, or slip and fall for a variety of reasons.
  • Violence. Some patients have severe emotional problems. Some patients are admitted because they’ve been shot or hurt due to force. Nurses are at risk of being attacked by a patient with psychological problems or by someone who is upset with the patient.

Injuries from overexertion, slips and falls, and violence include:

  • Fractures
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Spinal cord damage
  • Back and neck pain
  • Strains of the knee, shoulder wrist, and ankle

Some injuries can force a nurse to lose time from work from months and months. Some victims suffer permanent injuries where they can never return to work or where they can only work with restrictions on how much they can lift, how long they can stand, or other restrictions.

Nurses and occupational injuries

Nurses, especially nurses who work in hospitals, are prone to many types of occupational infections, disorders, and diseases including the following:

  • Exposure to biological dangers, bloodborne risks, airborne diseases, and contagion. Patients are often in a hospital because they have some type of disease or infection. Nurses can contract those diseases and infections through direct skin contact, through blood or bodily fluid that contacts the nurse, through coughs and sneezes, and through other means. Nurses are especially prone to COVID-19. They need to take extra precautions such as wearing special masks, gloves, shoes, and uniforms to decrease the risk of exposure.
  • Exposure to equipment that isn’t sterile and to toxic chemicals used to sterilize medical equipment and medical tools. Ethylene oxide is used to sterilize instruments. It’s a dangerous chemical.
  • Radiation exposure. Nurses who help patients with X-Ray must wear protective gear to reduce the risk or radiation exposures.

Nurses can also be exposed to:

  • Dangerous drugs
  • Latex which may cause allergic reactions
  • Anesthetic gases. For example, nitrous oxide
  • Lasers which can cause severe burns
  • Being stuck by a needle that has dangerous contaminants 

In order to be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits due to an occupational illness, the nurse must show, with the help of an experienced work injury lawyer:

  • That they were an employee
  • That their illness was due to workplace conditions
  • That their illness or disease was more likely due to specific workplace conditions than to similar types of exposures when the nurse was at home or was away from her/his workplace.
  • That it was not caused by anything outside of the workplace

Nurses who are exposed to these diseases may die. Survivors may never be able to work again or may need extensive physical and emotional care to return back to their nursing duties.

Nursing, COVID-19, and workers’ compensation

There’s currently no definitive answer or definitive North Carolina or Virginia law that determines whether nurses who contract COVID-19 are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. COVID-19 is not listed in the relevant state statutes which govern occupational illnesses and therefore it is going to be considered an “ordinary disease of life” which almost certainly means that any infected healthcare worker who makes a COVID-19 worker compensation claim is going to be DENIED by the insurance company.

The right of nurses and other healthcare workers under the current statutory claim workers’ to claim workers compensation benefits is very doubtful. 

One would think it seems relatively clear that nurses are exposed to COVID-19 through the work they do with COVID-19 patients or with even being near patients who have contracted the virus. On the other hand, nurses could also contract the virus at home, in a park, or anywhere outside their hospital or workplace environment. Generally, the likelihood of a nurse contracting the virus is much higher at work than away from work, but there is a reason it is called a “pandemic.” “Pan” means it’s everywhere. 

Even if a nurse does contract the disease, there are questions about what would be covered. Generally, workers’ compensation covers reasonable medical expenses and a percentage (typically 2/3rds ) of their average weekly salary. For COVID-19, medical bills should include payment for medical testing and any treatments that are required including medications and medical consultations.

But as noted above, under the current laws, all cases would most likely be denied by the insurance company and head to hearing. In fact, our office has already fielded such calls, and an as expected, the insurance companies are, in fact, denying COVID-19 claims

If the injured worker became severely ill and died from the disease, that death would likely occur well before any evidentiary Hearing to decide the matter. Because of the devastating impact of serious COVID-19 on the lungs, it is doubtful the employee could even provide any useful testimony before his or her death. 

In the worst cases, the healthcare worker could die from the disease. In both North Carolina and Virginia, the families of deceased employees are typically entitled to payment for the funeral and burial up to a preset amount and compensation for lost income up to a preset amount of time. For example, death benefits in North Carolina are paid for up to 500 weeks with some exceptions.

Does this situation not seem very unfair, particularly for our frontline healthcare workers who risk their lives for their fellow citizens? Should a nurse or doctor who is dying on a ventilator from COVID-19 have to worry that his or her family will get NO compensation whatsoever through that State’s Workers Compensation System? To further worry that they will have hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills hanging over their head, even if the healthcare worker should recover from the virus? 

The good news is there is an easy fix, which exists for some other diseases already, and that is to provide a presumption in the law for any healthcare worker who becomes ill from COVID-19 that their illness came from work and therefore is compensable as an Occupational Disease. 

Unfortunately, Virginia has seen fit to take no action thus far to provide any such presumption. 

See my video where I have pointed out this horrible situation and pleaded with my fellow Virginians to contact their State Representatives and Senators to pass a bill giving our healthcare workers battling COVID-19 a presumption for workers comp coverage. 

 Many states have recognized this terrible problem facing healthcare workers and other essential workers who become ill from COVID-19  and have taken action. 

Fortunately, in North Carolina two bills under consideration, House Bill 1056 will make COVID-19 or any Coronavirus a covered occupational disease for healthcare workers, and other first responders, and House Bill 1057 provides a presumption not just to healthcare workers, but all workers considered “essential” under Governor Roy Cooper’s Executive Order, that if they contract COVID-19, it will be presumed to be a compensable workers compensation illness.  

North Carolina and Virginia workers’ compensation lawyer Joe Miller Esq. has been fighting for injured workers for more than 31 years. He is available to speak with new clients about work injury claims during the COVID-19 health crisis. He understands the legal issues involved in filing claims for all types of accidents and occupational illnesses. For help now, call Joe Miller, Esq., at 888-694-1671 or use my online contact form to talk to an experienced workers’ compensation lawyer.