Just a few short weeks ago, the Center for Disease Control’s Director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases warned that the spread of coronavirus in the U.S. was “not a question of if, but when.” As of this updated posting, the entire country is locked in an unprecedented grip of uncertainty and concern regarding what comes next. Looking into the not-so-distant future, employers – particularly those in the healthcare industry – should be prepared for liability claims associated with the disease, namely Workers’ Compensation claims…it’s “not a question of if, but when.” Right now, the Governor’s shutdown of non-essential state government offices does NOT include the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation. That means, an employee with a medically-documented, extended leave of absence, related to the coronavirus can file a claim (online) and seek to recover wage loss benefits, and reimbursement for medical care, including out-of-pocket expenditures. This is not a “rubber-stamp” process – the filing of a claim merely starts the process of litigation, that could (for reasons explained below) result in liability for the employer (via its Workers’ Compensation carrier). The extent of liability for such a claim would be for wage loss and medical benefits associated with the disease…and does extend to the extreme circumstance of a death/survivor benefit. The remainder of this post explains the basis upon which a worker can submit a claim and recover wage loss and medical benefits through the Workers’ Compensation system. Focusing on employer liability, specifically PA Workers’ Compensation claims for those in the healthcare industry, there is a basic framework for determining whether COVID-19 cases would fall within the category of recoverable “occupational disease” claims in PA. By way of basic background – the PA Workers’ Compensation Act recognizes certain occupational disease claims as compensable. There are four specifically recognized and compensable “occupational disease” related Workers’ Compensation claims in PA. These are:
- Heart and lung disease for fireman who have four or more years of service;
- Pneumoconiosis and silicosis for any occupation that involves direct contact with or exposure to coal dust;
- Specific types of chemical poisoning (i.e. lead, arsenic, mercury) for occupations that involve direct contact or exposure, or to the preparation of compounds; and
- Tuberculosis and hepatitis for health care workers, blood processors, lab techs and related professionals who are exposed to these diseases.