Question: Is Exposure to COVID-19 For Nurses and Other Healthcare Workers, Causing Illness, Disability, or Death, Considered an Employment-Related Injury Under Workers’ Comp Coverage?
By Amanda I. Forbes, J.D. and George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law
In answering the question posed in the title of this blog, first, it should be noted that the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies COVID-19 as an “occupational disease.” (Reference: World Health Organization, “Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Outbreak: Rights, Roles and Responsibilities Of Health Workers. . . .”)
Click here to view the classification by the WHO on our website.
Most state workers’ compensation laws cover the worker for occupational diseases if the worker acquires it during the course and scope of their employment. For example, Section 440.151(2), Florida Statutes, states:
Whenever used in this section the term “occupational disease” shall be construed to mean only a disease which is due to causes and conditions which are characteristic of and peculiar to a particular trade, occupation, process, or employment, and to exclude all ordinary diseases of life to which the general public is exposed, unless the incidence of the disease is substantially higher in the particular trade, occupation, process, or employment than for the general public. “Occupational disease” means only a disease for which there are epidemiological studies showing that exposure to the specific substance involved, at the levels to which the employee was exposed, may cause the precise disease sustained by the employee.
Section 440.151(2), Florida Statutes, (emphasis added). Many other states have similar requirements to those of Florida.
Healthcare workers are at the front line of any outbreak response and as such are exposed to hazards that put them at an increased risk of infection with the COVID-19 virus. Therefore, as COVID-19 meets the criteria as an “occupational disease.”
Moreover, Section 440.151(1)(a), Florida Statutes, states:
Where the employer and employee are subject to the provisions of the Workers’ Compensation Law, the disablement or death of an employee resulting from an occupational disease as hereinafter defined shall be treated as the happening of an injury by accident, notwithstanding any other provisions of this chapter, and the employee or, in case of death, the employee’s dependents shall be entitled to compensation as provided by this chapter, except as hereinafter otherwise provided; and the practice and procedure prescribed by this chapter shall apply to all proceedings under this section, except as hereinafter otherwise provided. Provided, however, that in no case shall an employer be liable for compensation under the provisions of this section unless such disease has resulted from the nature of the employment in which the employee was engaged under such employer, was actually contracted while so engaged, and the nature of the employment was the major contributing cause of the disease. Major contributing cause must be shown by medical evidence only, as demonstrated by physical examination findings and diagnostic testing. “Nature of the employment” means that in the occupation in which the employee was so engaged there is attached a particular hazard of such disease that distinguishes it from the usual run of occupations, or the incidence of such disease is substantially higher in the occupation in which the employee was so engaged than in the usual run of occupations. In claims for death under s. 440.16, death must occur within 350 weeks after last exposure. Both causation and sufficient exposure to a specific harmful substance shown to be present in the workplace to support causation shall be proven by clear and convincing evidence.
Section 440.151(1)(a), Florida Statutes.
It is important to note that COVID 19 or any other communicable disease (TB, H1N1, etc.): The employee has to test positive for the disease/contagion and it must be determined with a reasonable amount of certainty that their exposure to the virus occurred in the workplace and was not community-acquired.
In addition, per Section 440.151(1)(c), Florida Statutes states:
Where an occupational disease is aggravated by any other disease or infirmity, not itself compensable, or where disability or death from any other cause, not itself compensable, is aggravated, prolonged, accelerated or in anywise contributed to by an occupational disease, the compensation shall be payable only if the occupational disease is the major contributing cause of the injury. Any compensation shall be reduced and limited to such proportion only of the compensation that would be payable if the occupational disease were the sole cause of the disability or death as such occupational disease, as a causative factor, bears to all the causes of such disability or death, such reduction in compensation to be effected by reducing the number of weekly or monthly payments or the amounts of such payments, as under the circumstances of the particular case may be for the best interest of the claimant or claimants. Major contributing cause must be demonstrated by medical evidence based on physical examination findings and diagnostic testing.
Section 440.151(1)(c), Florida Statutes, (emphasis added).
With regard to emergency medical technicians (EMTs) or paramedics Section 440.09(3), Florida Statutes, states:
If an emergency medical technician or paramedic is appointed or employed full time by a municipality, the state, or any political subdivision, is certified under chapter 401.23, in an emergency situation in this state, any such activities would be considered to be within the course of his or her employment and an emergency medical technician or paramedic and covered by the employer’s jurisdiction or area of responsibility, such activities are considered to be within the course of employment. The provisions of this subsection do not apply if the emergency medical technician or paramedic is performing activities for which he or she is paid by another employer of contractor.
Section 440.09(3), Florida Statutes (emphasis added).
Workers Compensation Benefits for Healthcare Professionals.
As of March 26, 2020, Florida has not issued any order or legislation explicitly stating that healthcare professionals exposed to COVID-19 will be entitled to Workers Compensation benefits.
By way of example, In the City of Phila. v. Workers’ Comp. Appeal Bd. (Sites), 889 A.2d 129 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2005), a claimant was successful in proving that his hepatitis C was caused by his exposure to blood that occurred while working as a firefighter and emergency medical technician (EMT). Similar to COVID-19, hepatitis C was also classified as a compensable “occupational disease.” Therefore, it is likely that a healthcare professional’s exposure to COVID-19 would result in viable workers’ compensation claim.
Federal workers’ compensation laws are similar to those quoted above. Therefore, federal health care providers and those working in federal facilities will also most probably be entitled to federal employment compensation (FECA) benefits under similar situations.
We want to emphasize that this is merely our preliminary opinion based on limited analysis and research. It is provided for informational purposes only. It does not constitute the provision of legal advice. Each state has different workers’ compensation laws and different case law, as does the federal government. Each individual set of circumstances may be different. Contact your local workers’ compensation plaintiff’s (claimant’s) attorney for advice and representation in your individual case.
For more information and more examples of employment compensation benefit cases for health care professionals, click here.
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About the Authors: Amanda I. Forbes, practices health law with The Health Law Firm in its Altamonte Springs, Florida, office. George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., is Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law; he is the President and Managing Partner of The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Its main office is in Orlando, Florida, area. www.TheHealthLawFirm.com. The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Ave. Suite 1000, Altamonte Springs, FL 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620.
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