Does workers’ comp cover job-related COVID-19 infections?

As Washington’s economy gradually reopens as part of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start plan, concerns from both businesses and employees about who will be responsible in the event of a workplace outbreak are rising.

The phased economic opening is proceeding on a county-wide basis contingent on the implementation of social distancing measures and other health standards, as well as additional requirements for some industries, according to Inslee’s office.

Against this backdrop, attorneys from Boston-based law firm Goodwin Procter explored the question of liability in a recent column for Bloomberg Law, focusing in part on what role workers’ compensation might play in protecting both parties in the event of on-the-job COVID-19 infections.

“As a general rule, when an employee is injured on the job, his or her employer’s liability is limited through the workers’ compensation system,” attorneys Mark Raffman and Stephen Shaw said. “The employee need not show that the employer breached a duty of care, but damages are limited.”

In this way, workers’ compensation insurance helps employees after workplace injuries without exposing their employer to legal claims that could otherwise bankrupt or severely disrupt business.

How does COVID-19 fit in?

Workers who contract an illness on the job are also eligible for workers’ comp in some cases, though as Raffman and Shaw note, “typically diseases that are not readily traceable to specific work activities or environmental conditions in the workplace are instead categorized as ‘ordinary diseases of life’ and are not compensable.”

COVID-19 straddles this line.

“Under certain circumstances, claims from health care providers and first responders involving COVID-19 may be allowed,” according to Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries (L&I), which handles workers’ comp claims. “Other claims that meet certain criteria for exposure will be considered on a case-by-case basis.”

Washington’s coronavirus response portal notes that “for a (coronavirus) claim to be accepted, there must be a documented or probable work-related exposure, and an employee/employer relationship.”

Laws related to coronavirus continue to evolve as more and more cases arise.

Faced with growing pressure to return to work amid uncertainty about worker protection laws in the event of coronavirus infection at the office, employees need professional advocates on their side.

Emery Reddy provides L&I, workers’ comp and employment law litigation advice and consultation. Our team of attorneys helps workers. Call us to find out your legal options.

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