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At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the fear of the silent killer circulating among workplaces sent workers across all sectors of the economy home. No one wanted to share close quarters with their coworkers.
Now the vast majority of white-collar desk workers are still working from home, but many never got that chance. Nurses, doctors, corrections officers, firefighters, grocery store employees, and other retail workers are all on the job, and many are contracting — and dying of — COVID-19.
Many work-related illnesses and injuries are covered by workers' compensation benefits, which cover medical care and a portion of lost wages.
However, diseases that easily spread, like colds and influenza, are often not covered by workers' comp benefits, because it can be difficult to prove that you contracted the illness while on the job.
And now comes COVID-19. With untraceable community spread happening across the country, it can be difficult to pin down exactly where a grocery worker contracted the disease. Common sense may lead you to believe that a nurse or bus driver contracting COVID-19 happened because of their work. But the case is not as clear cut as a coal miner developing black lung, for example.
As of late August, 19 states have expanded workers' compensation benefits in some form, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In most of those states, governors used executive orders or lawmakers voted to expand coverage to first responders, hospital workers, and other essential workers, although coverage varies by state. These states include:
Arkansas currently extends workers' comp benefits to all workers who contract COVID-19, but it does not grant a presumption of coverage. That means workers still have to prove that their diagnosis is linked to their work. For workers who live somewhere without extensive contact tracing or testing, this will be difficult to prove.
Wyoming law now covers all workers whose jobs qualify them for workers' compensation benefits, while granting a presumption of coverage.
And just this week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law making it much easier for workers who contract COVID-19 to collect workers' comp benefits. The bill gives a presumption of coverage to all first responders and health care workers, including janitors who come into contact with COVID-19 patients.
For all other workers, they will need to prove a workplace outbreak. For workplaces with five to 100 employees, that means at least four workers are infected in a two-week period. For workplaces with more than 100 employees, this means at least 4% of workers will need to test positive in a two-week period. While that may still be a difficult hurdle to clear, it is at least something.
For workers in all other states, you will need to speak with your boss, union rep, or a workers' compensation lawyer if you have questions about your options and rights.