If you haven’t heard of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, you’ve probably been living under a rock. And if that’s the case, you may want to stay there. We’ve all heard stories about people getting quarantined on cruise ships or at hotels due to the fear of the disease spreading. You may have seen someone walking around with a mask covering their face while out at a store or at an airport.
COVID-19 symptoms may manifest anywhere between 2 to 14 days after you’ve been exposed.3 Moreover, the symptoms can closely resemble the common cold or flu, so it’s important to stay vigilant with washing your hands and staying home if you feel unwell.
3According to the CDC, this is based on what has been seen previously as the incubation period of MERS-CoV viruses.
What Happens If You Were Exposed to Coronavirus (COVID-19) or Another Dangerous Virus at Work?
Your work may have taken steps to help contain the spread, like asking employees to work from home and grounding all travel. But what happens if you were exposed to coronavirus at work anyway? What if your symptoms don’t show up until later? Does your employer have to cover your medical bills through their workers’ compensation coverage? Are you legally entitled to benefits if you can’t work due to the disease?
As with many things in law, there are no clear-cut black and white answers to whether an infectious disease contracted at work could be covered by workers’ compensation laws. In North Carolina, coverage for workers’ compensation injuries is divided into two broad categories:
- Injuries that occurred by an accident or sometimes a specific traumatic event (i.e. spinal injuries or hernias); and
- Those caused by an occupational disease
We focus on occupational diseases below, as it is the most directly related to a potential workers’ compensation claim for coronavirus.
North Carolina Workers’ Compensation: Occupational Diseases
In North Carolina, occupational diseases can be covered either by:
- A medical condition or disease that lawmakers deemed are commonly associated with an occupation and listed in the state statute (see the full enumerated list of occupational diseases here), or
- When an occupation places someone more at risk than the general public to contract the disease
For example, certain conditions like asbestosis and silicosis are assumed to be occupational diseases in nature. They fall under a category that is listed and covered by state law.
Diseases that are not listed are only covered by workers’ comp if they are peculiar to a trade, occupation, or employment. The law goes on to exclude ordinary diseases of life when the public is equally exposed to the risk, like the common cold or flu.
COVID-19 is, for now, a relatively rare condition in the state, but there are already several confirmed cases in North Carolina. Exposure to the condition has been limited as those infected were told to self-quarantine in their homes. However, just because it is a rare condition does not mean it is an ordinary disease like the flu or a common cold.
Does the Nature of Your Work Put You More at Risk to Exposure to Coronavirus?
A person’s employment may put them in contact with the virus if they travel for work to an area where they are unwittingly exposed to other carriers of the virus. So if you travel for work and are exposed to coronavirus, do you automatically have a workers’ compensation claim? It depends. Simply being exposed in a work setting will not likely be sufficient for it to be covered under workers’ compensation laws. In North Carolina, for an injury to be covered by workers’ comp insurance, the person’s occupation would have to place them more at risk for contracting the virus than the general public. So you may want to ask yourself: Does the nature of my job place me more at risk of being exposed and contracting coronavirus than the general public? One large, and perhaps most obvious, example of a group that this may apply to is healthcare workers.
North Carolina Healthcare Workers, Coronavirus, and Workers’ Comp Laws
At the forefront of the battle against novel coronavirus, healthcare workers serve a vital role for diagnosis and treatment of the illness. Healthcare workers certainly would be a category of people who cannot avoid contact with a potentially infected person due to the nature of their work. We also know that more healthcare workers have contracted the virus than any other profession, and it has recently been reported that nearly 3,000 Chinese healthcare workers have gotten the coronavirus.
In North Carolina, simply being a healthcare worker may not be sufficient for employers to be required to extend coverage through workers’ compensation laws in the state. Even if a healthcare worker could prove that they were more at risk for contracting the disease, they would not necessarily be able to prove the claim.
A final element of proving you are entitled to coverage would be showing the work caused the condition. If a condition becomes commonplace, it is unlikely that you would be able to prove the condition arose at the employment. This may be a smaller hurdle due to the limited number of cases of coronavirus currently. However, it still could be a hurdle that would prevent a healthcare worker from obtaining necessary medical and disability coverage.
One fix for healthcare workers who are particularly at risk would be for the North Carolina legislature to mandate coverage for COVID-19 as a listed disease. It may be worth considering from a public policy standpoint to protect people who are placing their lives at risk to care for the injured and sick. Healthcare workers are in a demanding occupation with long hours and difficult jobs. Providing special protection for these workers would perhaps make sense given the nature of the risk we currently face.
NC Workers’ Compensation Lawyers: We’re Here for You
As we at the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin continue to closely monitor the COVID-19 pandemic, we also continue to serve our clients who were injured at work. We are committed to working with, and for, our clients, even as we remain vigilant of how this pandemic will affect our state.