With the coronavirus being declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO), the question arises whether or not employees can file a worker’s compensation claim based on contracting the disease. While highly unlikely, the coronavirus could be considered an occupational disease under certain circumstances. Worker’s compensation statutes generally provide that an employee is entitled to benefits for "occupational diseases" but typically exclude "ordinary diseases of life" (i.e., those to which the general public is equally exposed). However, if an employee can establish a direct causal connection to the workplace, there may be a valid argument for worker’s compensation coverage. The key is to confirm it is a workplace exposure and not a general life exposure. An employee is not entitled to statutory benefits if it is a risk to which the general population is exposed.
There are many workplace factors that can result in on the job illnesses for employees. For example, an employee may get sick after being exposed to chemicals used in business operations. Employees whose jobs have greater potential exposure to the virus than the typical worker would have a greater likelihood of a compensable worker’s compensation claim in the event of a coronavirus diagnosis. Certain health care occupations could have increased levels of potential exposure, as well as those with business travel to infected areas. However, each claim situation is based on individual merits and the differing laws of each state.
Employers can proactively manage their potential coronavirus exposure by encouraging their employees to take preventative steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus (and other contagious illnesses) within the workplace, such as:
- Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Stay home when sick.
- Cover coughs or sneezes with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
- Telework (if available) if the employee is feeling under the weather but well enough to work. The virus is believed to be spread person-to-person.