Businesses classified as nonessential have been forced to close their doors, while those considered essential have continued operation but under a new set of rules.
Along with other states, Massachusetts has established safety standards that workplaces must follow as they open to reduce the transmission of the virus among workers and customers. The safety standards include things like social distancing, hygiene, and cleaning and disinfecting.
Stricter rules apply to certain industries such as construction, manufacturing, hair salons, barbershops, pet grooming, and offices.
Regardless of social distancing, regular disinfecting, and other safety precautions, workers are at risk of contracting COVID-19 when they work. Essential workers, such as healthcare workers, grocery workers, and mass transit workers, have been at risk for months.
That brings us to the million-dollar question being asked by workers across the state. What happens if a worker contracts the coronavirus while working? Is the worker entitled to collect workers’ compensation benefits?
In Massachusetts, an employee’s contraction of contagious or infectious diseases doesn’t trigger workers’ compensation protection automatically. They must prove that “the hazard of contracting such diseases by an employee is inherent in the employment,” as specified in M.G.L. c.152 §1(7A).
The key phrase here is “inherent in the employment.” Employees must show that their job duties caused them to be exposed to the disease. If they can’t, then they won’t be able to collect benefits.
Applying Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Law to COVID-19 Claims
So, what does that mean when it comes to COVID-19 claims?
The short answer is that, at this time, no one really knows for sure. At this time, COVID-19 workers’ compensation claims are being filed and they have begun to make their way through the Massachusetts workers’ compensation system.
Individuals such as doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals working with patients who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 are likely to have a strong claim for workers’ compensation benefits. Their risk of contracting the virus is inherent in their employment, as they are required to work directly with the infected patients. By extension, hospital staff working in COVID-19 wards may also have strong claims.
Nursing home employees working in facilities that have experienced an outbreak of the virus are also likely to have formidable workers’ compensation claims. COVID-19 has particularly ravaged nursing homes throughout Massachusetts. More than 60% of coronavirus deaths in Massachusetts have been attributed to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
As of the date of this blog post, House Bill 4749 is pending at the Massachusetts State House. The proposed amendment to the state’s workers’ compensation law would provide coverage to emergency response and medical personnel in the state who have contracted COVID-19.
As written, the amendment would apply to “emergency medical technicians, emergency room and urgent care medical personnel, and emergency room and urgent care non-medical staff.” In any claim for workers’ compensation benefits filed by one of these employees who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, the bill states “it shall be prima facie evidence that … the employee was performing his or her regular duties at the time of contracting COVID-19.” Prima facie is a legal term that means “at first look” or “on its face.” In other words, the law would create a presumption that the employee was doing their jobs when they were infected by COVID-19.
It’s yet to be seen whether healthcare workers who don’t have direct contact with individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 will be entitled to benefits. Other non-medical employees who have been deemed essential, such as grocery store workers, fast food workers, and mass transit workers, are in a similar position.
Before the pandemic, these types of workers most likely wouldn’t be entitled to collect workers’ compensation if they contracted an infectious disease at work.
However, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is certain.
Massachusetts labor leaders are pushing for the creation of an “occupational presumption” for all frontline workers, including medical workers and grocery store workers. This presumption would make it so that any frontline worker that tests positive for COVID-19 will be presumed to have been exposed while on the job.
Proving That a COVID-19 Exposure Occurred in the Workplace
Until House Bill 4749 is passed, all employees seeking workers’ compensation for COVID-19 will need to show that they contracted the virus at work and not somewhere else. This could be a challenge as there’s no way for a person to verify how or where they contracted the virus.
Employers and their workers’ compensation carriers are likely to argue that the exposure occurred outside the workplace. As a result, it will be important to know where the employee has gone, who they have interacted with, what precautions they have taken, and whether they have come in contact with people that already had COVID-19. All of this information will help to determine if a workers’ compensation claim is possible.
If you have questions about whether you’re entitled to workers’ compensation for a COVID-19 diagnosis, your best course of action is to speak with an attorney. After learning the facts of your case, a workers’ compensation lawyer can help you understand your rights under the law and explain the next steps to take.
The Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman, LLC can help you with your workplace claim or other work accident claim.