Are workers who interact with the public and test positive for the Coronavirus (COVID-19) able to claim and collect Workers’ Compensation benefits? This question has frequently arisen since COVID-19 became a health concern in early 2020. New Jersey received national headlines when its governor determined that essential employees who were diagnosed with COVID-19 were eligible to make Workers’ Compensation claims with Senate Bill 2380.
Basics of the New COVID-19 Workers’ Compensation Bill in New Jersey
The bill, which was signed into law in late September, removes a restriction that prevented workers with COVID-19 from applying for Workers’ Compensation. Rather than needing to prove that they contracted the virus at work, employees only need to prove that they tested positive for the illness to receive benefits.
Retroactive to the earliest days of the pandemic, the bill has provided encouragement and financial support for essential workers with COVID-19. By taking away the barrier to receiving Workers’ Compensation, the bill enables individuals working on the front lines to recover fiscally as they recover physically.
Why is the New Bill Important?
Without the bill in place, untold numbers of essential employees facing the risk of COVID-19 exposure were shut out of the ability to make Workers’ Compensation claims. This meant that workers had to pay out of pocket and use sick time to quarantine. Even those with health insurance had to pay high premiums without any compensation. Others may have lost their positions or wages because of excessive work absences during their recovery or self-quarantining periods.
Because the long-term effects of COVID-19 are not known, being able to rely on Workers’ Compensation can offer peace of mind for those infected with the virus. On occasion, Workers’ Compensation claims can be reopened if on-the-job injuries do not improve. If COVID-19 presents unexpected extensive medical problems for some survivors, those survivors may need extra treatment.
Are All Essential Workers Guaranteed Workers’ Compensation?
Certain states follow the guidance of the federal definition of an essential worker. In New Jersey, state guidelines tend to follow federal guidelines. In general, all essential workers perform duties that contribute to the daily needs of people, commerce, government, and certain businesses. Examples include transportation; childcare; food production; energy; construction; and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC). It should be noted that the list of essential employees may be subject to interpretation.
Although the New Jersey bill goes a long way to close loopholes, it does allow employers and Workers’ Compensation insurance providers to deny claims. Denials can be made if the company or insurer can provide definitive proof that the worker was not exposed to COVID-19 at work but acquired the virus through personal contact. Because the bill is new, the type of evidence needed to deny an essential worker’s claim successfully is not known.
How are New Jersey Employers Responding to the Bill?
Many employers have pushed back against the New Jersey bill giving essential workers diagnosed with COVID-19 the ability to file for Workers’ Compensation. Two common arguments against the bill have been raised.
The first argument is that the bill is unnecessary because of other COVID-19 compensation streams available through the federal government. For instance, the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) has released money to help pay for workers who tested positive for COVID-19. The second argument is that the bill will put an unfair fiscal burden on companies already having trouble making ends meet as a result of fallout from the virus. However, the bill has been worded to suggest that employers’ premiums would not be affected regardless of how many COVID-19 claims were made by team members. Despite these arguments against signing the bill, the governor’s latest action has given more options to employees affected by COVID-19 as a result of their chosen occupations.
What Should Essential Workers with COVID-19 Do?
With the signing of this bill into law, all essential workers who contracted COVID-19 on the job after March 9 should submit a Workers’ Compensation claim. Workers’ Compensation covers the cost to treat at-work injuries, as well as offers employees who could not work a specific percentage of their lost wages. Workers’ Compensation does not cover pain and suffering or other non-economic losses.
Employees who suspect that they may have COVID-19 should self-quarantine per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. They should also get a test and await the results. If they find they contracted COVID-19 in the workplace, they can call their employer to start a Workers’ Compensation claim. Although COVID-19 symptoms vary by person, the most frequently reported warning signs include a dry cough, fever, muscle aches, mild to severe fatigue, stuffy nose, headache, and chills.
How can Essential Workers Avoid COVID-19?
Essential employees who remained healthy throughout the pandemic should continue to undergo protocols and practices to lower their risk of contracting COVID-19. These actions can include social distancing when possible, wearing face masks and other face protection, wearing proper personal protective equipment, using hand sanitizer, and washing hands regularly.
Can Essential Employees Appeal Denied Claims?
Any worker in New Jersey who has been denied a Workers’ Compensation claim has the right to make an appeal through a petition. Appealing can have its advantages, as some appeals succeed in reversing earlier denials. Nevertheless, putting together documentation to make a successful appeal can be challenging and stressful.
Many employees who have been denied Workers’ Compensation the first time around prefer to work with a Workers’ Compensation lawyer to make the appeal process easier on them. Anyone in this position should contact an attorney after receiving a denial, as a petition for an appeal must be made within two years of the workplace accident or contracting an occupational illness such as COVID-19.
Mt. Laurel Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at Kotlar, Hernandez & Cohen, LLC Fight for the Rights of Employees During the Pandemic
If you contracted COVID-19 as an essential worker in New Jersey, contact the Mt. Laurel Workers’ Compensation lawyers at Kotlar, Hernandez & Cohen, LLC. We are ready to fight for your rights and will do what it takes to obtain the benefits you deserve. Call us at 856-751-7676 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Mount Laurel, Cherry Hill, Trenton, and Vineland, New Jersey, as well as Trevose, Pennsylvania, we serve clients throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania.