On March 22, 2020, Governor Mike DeWine and Department of Health Director Amy Acton issued a stay-at-home order for the state of Ohio in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The order included the closure of all businesses deemed “non-essential.” This left many workers either idle or working from their homes.
Many other workers in businesses deemed “essential” continued to do their jobs. These included health-care workers, EMTs, firefighters and police officers. It included workers at grocery stores, gas stations and food production plants. It included delivery drivers, electricians, plumbers and transportation drivers, along with people at many other jobs.
These workers were on the front lines of the state’s response to coronavirus. Every day, they went to work and did the jobs that people depend on them to do. Every day during the crisis, they risked exposure to coronavirus.
What happens to these frontline workers when they develop COVID-19 while doing their jobs?
Current laws are inadequate
The Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation (BWC) is set up to help workers who were injured or became ill at the workplace. This includes becoming ill with what is known as an occupational disease. An occupational disease can be defined as an illness that a worker develops as a direct result to a hazard in the workplace.
If their claim for benefits is approved, workers have their medical expenses covered and can also collect partial wages while they can’t work. They may also be eligible for other benefits, such as compensation for a permanent disability.
In typical BWC cases, a worker has to prove an illness was related to workplace exposure. For example, a worker who develops cancer must prove that the job involved exposure to a known carcinogen.
It is highly likely that frontline workers during the coronavirus pandemic who became infected with the virus were exposed while doing their jobs. When workers claim they contracted an illness on the job, employers typically fight the claim and hire “expert” witnesses to say the worker could have caught the disease while off-duty. That can leave workers who become sick left to pay for their own medical expenses and suffer the loss of income without any assistance.
These workers deserve compensation
When it comes to paramedics, police officers, nurses, doctors, grocery store clerks, and other essential workers who are putting their lives on the line during a pandemic, we should not put them through a protracted fight over how they contracted COVID-19. They should go to work every day with the confidence that if they contract the virus, the workers comp system is going to be there to make things right.
Frontline workers in the coronavirus pandemic who become ill – those workers who deal with the public or take care of people sick with COVID-19 – should not have to prove where they were exposed to the virus in order to be approved for workers’ compensation benefits.
BWC has at least seemed open to the idea. They have formed a special unit to handle COVID-19 claims. In their publication “Coronavirus (COVID-19) Frequently Asked Questions,” they address the question of whether COVID-19 is a compensable claim:
A: It depends on how you contract it and the nature of your occupation. Generally, communicable diseases like COVID-19 are not workers’ compensation claims because people are exposed in a variety of ways, and few jobs have a hazard or risk of getting the diseases in a greater degree or a different manner than the general public. However, if you work in a job that poses a special hazard or risk and contract COVID-19 from the work exposure, BWC could allow your claim.
This is hardly definitive. It should be assumed that frontline workers were exposed while on the job.
A legal solution?
Some lawmakers in the state agree. There are bills in the Legislature addressing this issue. Both H.B. 573 and H.B. 571 would amend Ohio’s workers’ compensation laws to include COVID-19 on the list of scheduled compensable diseases. Both bills also propose language creating a presumption that people who were required to work outside of their homes contracted the virus during their course of employment.
Both bills apply to those workers who became ill during the state of emergency declared on March 8, 2020. While H.B. 573 would apply to any employee required to work outside the home, H.B. 571 applies only to “peace officers, firefighters, and emergency medical workers.”
Regardless of whether any legislation is passed, it’s important for any worker who developed COVID-19 as a result of workplace exposure to consult an experienced workers’ compensation lawyer as soon as possible. Merriman Legal offers free consultations.
Frontline workers are helping us make it through the coronavirus crisis. Now it’s time for us to help them.