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 in most states, 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 nature of your job, the circumstances in your case, and the rules in your state—including temporary changes to those rules during the pandemic.
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.
According to Will Peterson, a workers' comp attorney at Wood, Cooper & Peterson in Neosho, Missouri, "Even if the claimant could establish successfully that COVID-19 was contracted at work, which seems unlikely, the claimant would still be required to prove that there was something specific about their work that increased their risk of contracting COVID-19." According to Peterson, in Missouri "the law does not compensate individuals just because they are hurt or injured while working. Work has to be the prevailing cause of why the individual contracted COVID-19."
Peterson believes that "the vast majority of COVID-19 claims will be unsuccessful because the disease is a general hazard to everyone worldwide, irrespective of employment. Individuals are exposed to it both at work and everywhere else."
In a few states, you still 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. And at least one state has recognized that all employees working onsite during the pandemic emergency face a special risk of exposure to COVID-19 (more on that below).
In contrast, other 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 correctional officers and grocery workers in high-volume stores—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.
Several states have responded to the spike in COVID-19 cases among certain industries and worksites—by extending this special protection to first responders, healthcare workers, and others on the frontline of the pandemic. For example:
Can Federal Employees Get Workers’ Comp Benefits for COVID-19?
The Division of Federal Employees’ Compensation (DFEC), part of the U.S. Department of Labor, created special procedures for handling workers’ comp claims by federal employees who say they contracted COVID-19 while performing their job duties. Given how difficult it is to know exactly when or how anyone gets this disease, DFEC explained that it will consider certain federal workers at higher risk of infection—such as law enforcement, first responders, frontline medical and public health personnel, and others whose jobs require frequent, close, in-person interactions with the public—and will treat their COVID workers’ comp claims differently.
If you file a claim for COVID-19 as a high-risk federal employee, DFEC will accept that your job caused your exposure to the coronavirus. You can still file a claim if your job isn’t considered high risk. But you’ll need to provide evidence about your on-the-job exposure to the virus, along with medical evidence showing that work-related activities directly caused or aggravated your diagnosed case of the disease. (Learn more about the federal workers’ compensation system and the required evidence and claim procedures for COVID-19 under that system.)
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 at a shipping facility or a meat processing plant that hasn’t provided face masks or instituted 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 varying approaches. 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, explain how the current rules apply to your situation, and help you with an appeal if that's appropriate. An experienced employment lawyer should also be able to explain whether you might be able to sue your employer outside of the workers' comp system for failing to protect you from the coronavirus.
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.