If you depended financially on a family member who died as a result of a work-related injury or illness, you may be able to collect what are known as “death benefits” under California workers’ comp system. These benefits are intended to help compensate the survivors for the loss of financial support from the deceased employee. In addition to death benefits, the employer (or its insurance company) must pay an amount for burial expenses.
Death Benefits in California When an Employee Dies from COVID-19
Can you get death benefits if you're the survivor of an employee who died after contracting COVID-19 at work? The answer will depend not only on your relationship to the deceased (as discussed below), but also on whether workers' comp covered the illness in the first place. And that, in turn, could depend on the nature of your loved one's job and workplace.
Normally, it can be difficult to meet the requirements for proving that an infectious disease was work related. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, however, California enacted laws that made it easier for some employees to qualify for workers’ comp by presuming that COVID-19 is work related when they test positive for the illness within 14 days after working at their employer's job site. The laws apply to first responders and many healthcare workers, employees working at certain workplaces where there's been an outbreak of the disease, and any essential employees who were working onsite in the late spring and early summer of 2020. (Learn more about workers' comp coverage in California for COVID-19.)
You may be eligible for death benefits if you were totally or partially dependent on the deceased employee for your financial support at the time of the injury, and you were either a member of the employee’s household or were the employee’s close relative. Qualifying relatives include:
Certain family members are automatically considered total dependents of the employee:
Other family or household members (including spouses who earned more than $30,000) will have to provide evidence that they were totally or partially dependent on the deceased employee. For example, an elderly father could qualify as a total dependent if he could show that he’d been living with his son (the deceased employee) at the time of the injury, and that his son had paid for the father’s food, clothing, and other living expenses. (Cal. Labor Code §§ 3501-3503 (2020).)
The total amount of death benefits depends on the number of eligible dependents. If the injury that led to the employee’s death happened after 2005, the amounts for those who were totally dependent on the employee are:
If there are two or more total dependents, the amount of the death benefit will be equally split between them.
Partial dependents may also receive benefits, but only if there was no more than one total dependent. If there weren’t any total dependents, the partial dependents will split an amount that’s eight times what they had received in annual support from the deceased employee, up to a maximum of $250,000. If there was one total dependent, that person will still receive the full $250,000, while the partial dependents will receive four times the amount of their annual support up to a total of $290,000. When there are multiple partial dependents, the total benefit will be divided between them in proportion to the extent of their dependency on the deceased employee.
Death benefits are typically paid in installments, in the same manner and weekly amount as temporary total disability benefits, but not less than $224 per week. (For information about temporary disability rates, see our article about how workers’ comp benefits are calculated in California.) (Cal. Labor Code §§ 4700 and following (2020).)
Example: John passed away from injuries he sustained as a construction worker in 2018. At the time of his injury, he was living with and supporting his wife, who earned less than $30,000 a year. John was also contributing $10,000 per year to pay for his mother’s stay at a retirement home. In these circumstances, John’s wife, a total dependent, would receive installment death benefits up to a total of $250,000. His mother, a partial dependent, would receive a total of $40,000 (4 × $10,000).
A California appellate court has held that death benefits may not be paid to the deceased employee’s estate when there are no surviving eligible dependents (Six Flags, Inc. v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Bd., 145 Cal.App.4th 91 (Cal. Ct. App. 2006)).
Even after the maximum death benefit amount (outlined above) has been reached, installment payments at the temporary disability rate will continue for totally dependent children of the deceased employee until the youngest child turns 18 or an incapacitated child dies. (Cal. Labor Code § 4703.5 (2020).)
At the latest, surviving dependents must file a claim for death benefits within a year after the employee died as a result of the work-related injury or illness, and no more than 240 weeks after the injury itself. If the employer has had to pay certain types of compensation related to its misconduct (and the death came more than a year after the injury), the filing deadline is one year after the last payment date for that compensation. (Cal. Labor Code § 5406 (2020).)
In addition to death benefits, the workers' comp insurance company must pay the reasonable burial expenses for the deceased employee, up to a maximum of $10,000 for injuries that happened after 2012. (Cal. Labor Code § 4701(a) (2020).)
If the insurance company still owed the injured employee any benefits for medical expenses, temporary disability, or permanent disability when the worker died, it must pay those benefits to the dependents or, if there weren’t any surviving dependents, to the employee’s legal heirs or personal representative. The dependents or heirs might also be able to collect any penalties that are owed for late payments. (Cal. Labor Code §§ 4650, 4700, 5814 (2020).)
If there’s any doubt that you were completely or partially dependent on someone who died as a result of a work-related injury, it would be wise to consult with a workers’ comp lawyer. An attorney who’s experienced in this area of the law can work with you to gather the right kind of evidence needed to support your claim. A workers’ comp lawyer can also help ensure that you collect all of the benefits—including overdue disability payments and penalties—that you’re entitled to receive on behalf of your deceased relative.