The COVID-19 pandemic has created many unprecedented challenges for today’s businesses. Many industries had to switch to managing a remote or hybrid workforce. But there’s still a broad spectrum of organizations, from retail and manufacturing to F&B and aviation, that can’t make “work from home” the new norm.
Then there’s the vast gamut of essential workers, including medical professionals, sanitation workers, law enforcement officers, etc., who are required to work in close quarters. Also, they’re at a significantly higher risk of getting exposed to the novel coronavirus.
So, if you or anyone you know happens to get infected with COVID-19 at the workplace, what kind of protection do workers’ compensation laws provide? In this blog, we’ll delve deeper into the universe of workers’ compensation benefits and understand whether they’re applicable to COVID-19. Let’s get started.
Decoding Workers Compensation Laws
The topic of workers compensation laws is fairly complex and vast. Most of these laws are developed at the state level, which means every state has its own list of benefits and protections. Also, the conditions under which these laws are applicable to employees vary from one state to another.
The common thread that unites these laws is that they’re designed to safeguard employees from the financial repercussions of workplace-related injuries and illnesses.
For instance, Louisiana workers’ compensation laws obligate employers to compensate workers for medical expenses, as well as lost wages due to mental or physical injuries caused by a workplace accident or occupational illness.
Full-time / part-time employees, contractual workers, and minors are protected by Louisiana worker’s compensation laws. Employers are required to provide workers compensation benefits even if they have just one employee.
The type of benefits you’re entitled to vary depending on the type and extent of your injury. If an employee suffers from temporary total disability due to an injury covered by workers comp laws and is unable to return to work for more than seven days, they’re entitled to weekly or monthly benefits.
On the other hand, if an employee succumbs to a workplace-related injury or illness, surviving dependents in their family are entitled to weekly benefits.
Should Workers Compensation Laws Cover COVID-19?
It’s worth noting that the idea of workers’ compensation benefits was conceived early on in the 20th century. They were primarily designed to protect employees rigorously working in industries, such as manufacturing, mining, agriculture, etc.
But what happens when an employee gets infected with COVID-19? Are employers liable to cover medical bills and income loss arising due to the disease?
Honestly, there isn’t an easy way to answer those questions. While the debate is ongoing, there are some significant benefits of providing coverage for COVID-19 under workers’ compensation benefits.
To begin with, it encourages employees to return to the workplace without constantly worrying about their safety and wellbeing. It’s crucial considering that the disease can become life-threatening in some cases, and even leave lasting symptoms that can interfere with their productivity and performance.
Having the safety net of workers comp benefits will go a long way to help brick-and-mortar businesses resume operations. It’s crucial for the overall economic recovery across the globe without compromising the wellbeing of the workforce.
It’s particularly important for essential workers who are at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic. However, employees from retail, manufacturing, transportation, and other industries should also be entitled to these benefits.
Moreover, having access to medical benefits and wage compensation will encourage workers to report symptoms and take time off work. In the absence of workers comp benefits, sick workers might come to the office, even if they experience mild COVID-like symptoms. Needless to say, it jeopardizes the safety of the entire workforce.
Why Aren’t More Companies Offering Workers Compensation Benefits For COVID-19?
The decision to cover COVID-19 under workers’ compensation laws depends on both employers and policymakers. The main factor making them hesitant is the long incubation period of COVID-19. It’s difficult to ascertain whether an employee had contracted the disease at the workplace.
Another crucial challenge is to determine when workers’ comp benefits become valid in the case of COVID-19. Do employees start receiving benefits right from the time they show symptoms and go under quarantine? Or do they have to wait for a positive RT-PCR report before they can claim any benefits?
The complicated answers to these questions are preventing employers from including the novel coronavirus disease in workers’ comp benefits.
Then there’s also the issue of vaccine hesitancy. If certain workers, who are unwilling to take the shot, get infected with COVID-19, would employers still be liable under workers’ compensation laws?
One way around that problem is to implement mandatory vaccine requirements at workplaces. In Louisiana, a few organizations, including Ochsner Health, have already issued vaccine mandates for employees. Also, the state government is likely to subject unvaccinated state workers to mandatory testing.
How Should Employees Deal With The Toll Of COVID-19?
Ultimately, the onus is on business owners and policymakers to decide whether workers’ compensation laws should provide coverage for COVID-19. They also need to make a decision on whether to issue mandatory vaccination requirements for workers.
Meanwhile, it’s a good idea for employees to seek legal counsel if they’re sure they’ve contracted COVID-19 at the workplace. Consult a lawyer to learn more about your rights and explore the possibility of holding your employer liable.