Workers’ compensation and “ordinary diseases” like the coronavirus

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This year has been challenging for many companies and individuals due to the coronavirus pandemic. For employers, they’ve had to find ways to reorganize their office setting to socially distance and protect their employees. Many have also been forced to shut down for several weeks as local state governments worked toward controlling the spread of the virus.

Employers have laid off or furloughed many individuals. Other workers are afraid to go to their job out of fear of catching the virus.

All of these challenges raise an interesting question in the realm of workers’ compensation. Can you file for workers’ compensation when you catch the coronavirus while at work?

Can you file for workers’ compensation if you contract the coronavirus at work?

The answer is slightly complicated. For the most part, you cannot file workers’ compensation for catching the coronavirus as it is considered “an ordinary disease of life.” Proving specifically that you caught the virus in your line of work and not somewhere else will be exceedingly challenging.

Only in rare circumstances will workers, such as health care workers, be able to prove that they caught the virus while at work and should receive workers’ compensation for their missed work.

When you suffer an injury on the job, it’s much easier to prove that those injuries were work-related. There’s a certain cause and effect scenario missing from “an ordinary disease of life” that makes it nearly impossible to prove in workers’ compensation law.

So as states reopen slowly and people return to office settings and worksites, what provisions are in place for protecting your paycheck amidst a global pandemic?

Paycheck protection during the coronavirus pandemic

The good news is, because the coronavirus is a pandemic and the local authorities are doing all they can to contain it, there are other resources available to you outside of workers’ compensation.

Under the CARES Act, your employer must provide two weeks of paid sick leave or vacation time when you are sick with the coronavirus. Additionally, you can take up to 12 weeks of FMLA leave if you work for a company that has 1-500 employees.

Refusing to go to work

Despite the precautions the country has put in place to ensure you have paycheck protection should you catch the coronavirus, you might still feel uncomfortable with returning to work. In Virginia, this is an extremely challenging scenario because it is a right to work state. This means that your employer can fire you at any moment.

However, under OSHA, you can refuse to go to work or take an assignment when there is “a risk of death or serious physical harm. For this to be the case, you’ll need to prove that all 4 of these elements are applicable to your situation:

  1. You requested that your employer remove the danger from your workplace, but they did not do so.
  2. You refused to work “in good faith.”
  3. Any reasonable person would agree that there is a serious risk of physical harm or death from working under your current conditions.
  4. You don’t have adequate time to resolve the hazard through normal enforcement channels.

In circumstances where an employer is following CDC guidelines for 6 feet of social distancing, sanitizing common surfaces, etc., it will be extremely challenging to prove these four aspects are present in your workplace.

Instead of outright choosing not to show up to work, have a discussion with your employer. Request a change in responsibilities that help you come in contact with fewer people each day. You might also request to work remotely from time to time.

Many employers understand the stress and burden that their employees are experiencing. It’s best during these challenging economic times to do what you can to keep your job  to avoid unemployment.

Workers’ compensation attorney in Virginia

While the coronavirus itself is unlikely to give you a reason for a workers’ compensation claim, the decreases in staffing or attentiveness to safety measures might. For example, not following inspection protocols for equipment due to having to spread out the staff to do regular sanitization could lead to a workplace injury. Or moving around office equipment to make way for social distancing could throw out your back or you could suffer injuries in some way.

If you believe your injury is workplace-related but your employer is not working with you to ensure you are compensated, contact Gore & Kuperman. We are an experienced team of attorneys ready to fight for your rights. We will ensure that a workplace injury does not negatively impact your personal finances.