If you were injured or developed an occupational disease because of your job in Alabama, you may be eligible to receive benefits through the state workers' compensation system. This article explains how the state calculates the most important workers' comp benefits.
The actual amount you ultimately receive will depend on circumstances unique to your case, including the nature and extent of your injuries, whether you're able to return to your normal job, and how much you were earning at the time of your injury. (To get these benefits, you will need to file a workers' comp claim and show that your injury or illness is work related.)
Can You Get Workers' Comp Benefits for COVID-19 in Alabama?
Under Alabama law, workers' comp doesn't cover illnesses unless they meet the definition of an occupational disease (or develop as a result of an on-the-job accident). To be considered an occupational disease, an illness must have developed "as a direct result of exposure, over a period of time," to hazards that are peculiar to a particular occupation and that exceed the risks of employment in general. (Ala. Code §§ 25-5-1, 25-5-110 (2020).)
It would be very difficult for most employees to meet that standard in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. Some employees—especially first responders or healthcare workers who treat infected patients—could probably demonstrate that the particular working conditions of their jobs present a higher-than-average risk of exposure to the virus. But even these workers face the additional hurdle of showing that they contracted COVID-19 as a result of on-the-job exposure over a period of time. It's not yet clear how workers' comp judges in Alabama will interpret that requirement in the law.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, several states enacted measures making it easier for certain frontline employees to get workers' comp benefits for COVID-19 by presuming that the disease is work related unless the employer proves otherwise. Alabama has not joined those states.
If your doctor says that you can't work at your normal job while you're recovering from your injury or occupational disease, you will be eligible for temporary disability benefits. Alabama has a three-day waiting period before temporary disability benefits begin, unless you're disabled for 21 days or more. (Ala. Code § 25-5-59 (2020).)
You will receive temporary total disability (TTD) benefits when your injuries prevent you from doing any work during your recovery. In Alabama, TTD benefits are generally two-thirds of your average weekly wages (typically based on your earnings over the year before your injury). However, the state sets maximum and minimum amounts for these payments based on average statewide earnings. For injuries that happen between July 2020 and June 2021, the maximum TTD benefit is $920 per week, and the minimum is $253 unless your pre-injury wages were lower than that. (The Alabama Department of Labor's website publishes a list of maximum and minimum benefits for other years.)
You should continue receiving TTD benefits until you're able to return to work or your doctor says that you've reached "maximum medical improvement" (MMI), which means that your condition has stabilized and isn't likely to improve any further. (Ala. Code §§ 25-5-57(a)(1), (b), 25-5-68 (2020).)
Alabama pays temporary partial disability benefits when you are able to do some work after your injury but can't earn as much as usual—typically because your doctor has restricted you to light-duty or part-time work. These benefits are two-thirds of the difference between your pre-injury earnings and what you're able to earn now. For example, suppose you normally earn $800 a week, but now you can only handle a light-duty job that pays $500 per week. You would receive $200 in weekly benefits (two-thirds of $300).
Alabama sets a 300-week limit on temporary partial disability benefits. (Ala. Code § 25-5-57 (2020).)
Once you've reached MMI, your doctor will evaluate you to determine if you have any permanent physical impairment as a result of your injury and, if so, to what extent. You'll receive a permanent disability rating in the form of a percentage of disability. Most of the time, your permanent disability will be partial.
Alabama has different ways of calculating permanent partial disability (PPD) benefits, depending on the nature of your disability: scheduled awards based on impairments to certain body parts, awards for disfigurement, and unscheduled awards for other injuries.
A schedule in Alabama law lists a number of weeks for the loss or lost use of certain body parts—basically the extremities, eyes, and hearing loss. For example, amputation or complete lost use of an arm is worth 222 weeks. If you've lost partial use of an arm, you'd receive TTD benefits for a number of weeks in proportion to the percentage of your impairment. For instance, if you lost 50% of the use of an arm, you would receive payments for 111 weeks.
The weekly amount of these benefits is $220 per week or two-thirds of your pre-injury wages, whichever is less. You may ask to receive the total amount of your scheduled award in a lump sum rather than in weekly installments, but your request will be approved only if the workers' comp judge believes that would be in your best interest. (Ala. Code §§ 25-5-57(3), 25-5-68, 25-5-83 (2020).)
If your injury has resulted in a serious disfigurement that limits your ability to find work (and isn't already covered by a scheduled loss of use), you might be awarded PPD benefits up to 100 weeks. Disfigurement awards have the same $220-per-week maximum as scheduled awards, and you may request to receive the benefits in a lump sum. (Ala. Code §§ 25-5-57(3), 25-5-68, 25-5-83 (2020).)
If you have an impairment to a part of your body that's not included in the schedule—such as your back, neck, head, or internal organs—your weekly PPD benefit will be based on the difference between your pre-injury injury wages and what you're able to earn in your current condition, up to a maximum of $220 a week. These benefits will last for a maximum of 300 weeks, minus the number of weeks that you already received TTD benefits. Here again, you may ask to receive these benefits in a lump sum. (Ala. Code §§ 25-5-57(3)(g), 25-5-68, 25-5-83 (2020).)
If you're permanently and totally disabled as a result of your injuries—meaning that you're completely unable to work or to be retrained for any gainful employment—you will continue to receive weekly benefits at the PPD rate (subject to the same maximum and minimum), potentially for the rest of your life. However, your employer may ask the court to end these benefits if it claims that you're able to do some work as a result of physical or vocational rehabilitation. You may not receive these benefits if you've refused to accept reasonable work accommodations offered by your employer or to participate in physical or vocational rehabilitation. (Ala. Code § 25-5-57(4) (2020).)
Alabama workers' compensation also provides additional benefits, including:
If you're having trouble collecting all of the workers' comp benefits you deserve, a qualified workers' comp attorney may be able to help. And before you sign a workers' comp settlement, you should have a lawyer review the agreement to make sure that your rights are fully protected. (Learn more about when you need a lawyer for your workers' comp case.)