If you or a loved one has been exposed to novel coronavirus (COVID-19) while on the job, a North Carolina workers’ compensation lawyer can help you figure out what benefits you may qualify for. The Law Offices of Scott Farrin is dedicated to protecting the rights of injured workers and will fight for the benefits you deserve. See how an experienced North Carolina workers’ compensation attorney can help you. Contact us today for a free case evaluation.
According to the CDC, COVID-19 symptoms may manifest anywhere between 2 to 14 days after you’ve been exposed to an infected person — even if that person isn’t showing any symptoms yet. 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.
What happens if you were exposed to COVID-19 at work?
Your work may have taken steps to help contain the spread of novel coronavirus, like asking employees to work from home and grounding all travel. But what happens if you were exposed to novel 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 workers’ comp benefits if you can’t work due to illness caused by COVID-19?
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.
Does your work put you more at risk of contracting novel 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 COVID-19, do you automatically have a workers’ compensation claim? It depends.
Simply being exposed in a work setting will not likely be enough 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.
You may want to ask yourself: Does the nature of my job place me more at risk of being exposed and contracting COVID-19 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.
Healthcare workers like doctors and nurses, along with medical service providers such as EMTs and paramedics, work in occupations that are inevitably going to put them in close or direct contact with COVID-19 patients, thus placing them more at risk for contracting the virus compared to the general public.
And in fact, more healthcare workers have contracted the virus than any other profession. OSHA has recently listed industries that may be at a higher risk for exposure. OSHA indicates that people working in the following occupations are at a higher risk of contracting the virus:
- Airline operations
- Border protection
- Solid waste and wastewater management, and
- Those who travel to areas where the virus is spreading rapidly
However, in North Carolina, simply being a healthcare worker may not be enough 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.
To better assure coverage, the North Carolina legislature would have to make COVID-19 a listed provision in the state’s laws. Other states are providing coverage under workers’ compensation laws. According to the National Council on Compensation Insurance, Ohio, New York, Minnesota, Alaska, and California have all passed legislation covering COVID-19 under workers’ compensation for some employees. Advocacy groups are pushing for coverage in other states as well.
But even coverage under a listed provision or through some form of mandate does not provide swift and sure relief to families who may be the most impacted by the condition. Often, even when conditions are listed and presumed to be covered, there are complex medical causation questions that a victim’s family will have the burden of proving in court. These cases can still take years to litigate.
It may be that a better solution outside of the existing law is needed. Currently the FFCRA (Families First Coronavirus Response Act) provides only short-term protection for people who contract the disease. For those rare cases where the consequences of the disease are most severe, the General Assembly and Congress should consider State and/or Federal funding for coverage. Precedent for such exists in North Carolina. We have provided coverage for people injured by vaccines and compensation for victims of our state’s Eugenics policy. We could consider similar coverage for those severely impacted by COVID-19 at work.
Our NC Workers’ Comp Legal Team is Here for You
As the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin continues to closely monitor the COVID-19 pandemic, we also continue to serve our clients who were injured at work. Our North Carolina workers’ compensation lawyers are committed to working with, and for, our clients, even as we remain vigilant of how this pandemic will affect our state.