If you believe that you contracted COVID-19 because of exposure to the coronavirus on the job or while traveling for work, you may be wondering if you qualify for workers’ compensation benefits (including wage-loss benefits when you’re in quarantine). The short answer is that it will probably be difficult to get these benefits, unless you’re a healthcare provider or first responder who treated an infected person. The longer answer is that it will depend on the laws in your state, the nature of your job, and the circumstances in your case.
Workers’ compensation generally covers diseases that employees contract because of their work—or in legal jargon, occupational diseases “arising out of and in the course of employment” (AOE/COE). Although common infectious diseases like the flu aren’t considered occupational illnesses, COVID-19 might be treated differently in some cases.
Specific eligibility requirements for occupational diseases vary from state to state, but you typically need to demonstrate that:
When an infectious disease becomes widespread in the community, as in the case of the coronavirus pandemic, it can be particularly difficult to meet both of those requirements. In a few states, you might be able to qualify even if your job isn’t considered particularly high risk, as long as you have strong medical evidence of workplace exposure.
However, some states, like South Carolina, rule out workers’ comp coverage when employees contract a contagious disease from coworkers or when they would’ve been equally exposed outside of work (S.C. Code § 42-11-10 (2020)).
Clearly, first responders and healthcare workers face a particular danger of being exposed to COVID-19, especially in the midst of a pandemic and shortages of proper protective equipment. But workers in other occupations—like high-volume retail or airport screeners—might also be able to show that the nature of their work put them at higher risk than the general population.
Many states give special protection to first responders (including police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians) by presuming that they’ll get workers’ comp benefits when they come down with certain illnesses. When the presumption applies, it’s up to the employer or its insurance company to prove that the illness was caused by something unrelated to work. This presumption typically applies to specific occupational diseases listed in the statutes. But there's also usually a "catch-all" provision that applies the presumption for any occupational disease when the requirements discussed above are met (special risk plus documented exposure).
In Vermont, these protections already apply to infectious diseases like COVID-19. That state's law presumes that workers’ comp will cover firefighters and ambulance/rescue squad workers who acquire any lung disease or infectious disease caused by “aerosolized airborne infectious agents” after a documented exposure in the line of duty (Vt. Stat. tit. 21, § 601 (2020)).
As state governments respond to the onslaught of COVID-19, some legislatures may extend these protections for workers on the front lines of the pandemic. For instance, officials in Washington State indicated (in early March 2020) that they would be taking action to make sure that healthcare workers and first responders would be able to get workers’ comp benefits for their on-the-job exposure to the virus.
What if you believe that you were exposed to the coronavirus because of dangerous conditions at your workplace rather than the nature of your occupation? For instance, you might work for a shipping/delivery company that hasn’t provided proper cleaning of equipment, training, or social distancing measures for employees. Can you get workers’ comp benefits if you contracted COVID-19 after being exposed to an infected coworker?
Although laws haven’t addressed this question directly, existing statutes and court opinions indicate that states may take a different approach. Under New Jersey law, for example, workers’ comp may cover occupational diseases that are materially caused by conditions that are particular to their place of employment, in addition to their trade of occupation. And New Jersey courts have held that the sick employees only need to show a probable link between the workplace conditions and the occupational disease. (N.J. Stats. § 34:15-31 (2020); Magaw v. Middletown Bd. of Educ., 731 A.2d 1196 (N.J. Sup. Ct. App. 1999).)
However, courts in other states have held that employees must show a link between the distinctive nature of their jobs rather than conditions at a particular workplace (see, for example, Demers v. St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center, 271 A.D.2d 857 (N.Y. App. Div. 2000)).
Employers and their insurance companies will probably fight hard against workers’ comp claims for COVID-19—at least for anyone other than employees in particularly high-risk occupations with clear evidence that they were exposed to an infected person on the job. If you file a claim and are denied at first, you should speak with a qualified workers’ comp attorney who can evaluate your claim and explain how the law applies to your situation.
Meanwhile, however, you have other options for getting more immediate benefits, including emergency paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act or, in California, short-term disability benefits.