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Does Workers' Compensation Cover Coronavirus?

The world has changed amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, and that includes the way we work.

While shutdowns, social distancing, and work-from-home policies have had an immediate impact on employees across the world, large numbers of workers – especially those in industries heavily taxed by the outbreak or where exposure risks are heightened – are working more than ever. Many of these workers have growing concerns about their health and risks they face on the job.

COVID-19 & Workers’ Compensation in New York

With New York City and the state of New York taking decisive action to close schools, restaurants, and bars, and many companies changing how they do business, Attorney Edward Guldi recently sat down with two news outlets to discuss whether coronavirus falls under workers’ compensation.

Will Workers’ Compensation Cover Coronavirus?

Currently, we do not know for sure whether contraction of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) due to exposure during the course of work will qualify for benefits under the workers’ compensation law. While it is possible that it will qualify as either an accident or occupational disease, depending on the particular facts, this will be highly controversial and claimants can expect that the workers’ compensation insurance carriers will fight all these claims.

Per NY workers’ compensation law:

  • An accident occurs when there is a clear connection between a condition and a specific event;
  • An occupational disease is a disease which results from the nature of employer, and is contracted in the course of employment.

Though there may be specific guidance issued on workers’ comp and coronavirus as things develop, or additional resources and relief for those diagnosed with the condition, there is existing case law that sets precedent in matters involving infectious diseases and workers’ compensation.

Occupational Disease: Infectious Disease & Workers’ Comp

The most notable examples of infectious diseases that can be compensated under workers’ compensation are tuberculosis and HIV. Two tuberculosis-related cases in particular may be relevant for health care providers and hospital / medical staff:

  • Health Care Providers: Lyden v. United Hosp. established precedent that health care workers (including nurses, doctors, and other providers) exposed to tuberculosis can claim workers’ comp for an occupational disease even if they are unable to prove specific exposure. The case involved a lab technician with no prior history of tuberculosis who contracted TB in 1949 after working 11 years in her industry. Though she was not able to point to a specific exposure incident, it was determined she had a compensable occupational disease.
  • Hospital / Medical Staff: Lachowicz v. Albany Med. Ctr. Hosp. involved a maintenance worker who contracted tuberculosis in the course of his work repairing equipment in a hospital tuberculosis ward. The Court determined his case met the definition for an occupational disease, and the decision has been applied to non-medical staff in health care settings, including administrative workers, janitors, aides, and others.

While there have been similar cases in the past, there have also been cases where workers’ compensation courts have limited certain occupations from qualifying for benefits under occupational disease rules. These include:

  • In Paider v. Park E. Movers, the Court found that simply working around tuberculosis and people with the disease was not enough for a moving company truck driver to qualify for workers’ comp, nor was it enough to contract the disease from a co-worker.
  • The Court of Appeals, in Harman v. Republic Aviation Corp., reversed a workers’ comp award over tuberculosis contracted through an aircraft factory worker’s contact with a co-worker.
  • Another tuberculosis case, Buckley v. Gallagher Bros. Sand & Gravel Corp., ruled that a bookkeeper was not eligible for workers’ compensation because she contracted tuberculosis from a co-worker, and “not the occupation which caused the disease.”
  • In Longshore v. United Seamen’s Serv., Inc., the Court ruled that working in a profession that required travel (which increased the risk of contracting a disease), was not enough to qualify for workers’ compensation benefits.

As Attorney Guldi explains, existing case law from the tuberculosis epidemic restricts workers’ compensation benefits to health care workers and non-medical workers in health care settings. Taxi drivers, flight attendants, and waiters have historically not been eligible for workers’ comp benefits in cases of occupational diseases like tuberculosis.

In the 1980s and 1990s, an even more restrictive definition of occupational disease was applied to cases involving HIV and AIDs. In Artiste v. Kingsbook Jewish Med. Ctr., for example, the Court ruled a nurse’s aide diagnosed with AIDS after being pricked by a needle in 1989 did not have a case for workers’ compensation, as exposure to HIV via blood-contaminated objects was not a generally recognized risk of the occupation.

Workers’ Comp Accidents & Infectious Disease

Ultimately, workers’ compensation claims filed for workers who contract an infectious disease, such as the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), as a result of their work are controversial. However, given the prior case law discussed above, it is possible you may have a claim and you consult an attorney if you have further questions.

Have questions about workers’ compensation, coronavirus, and your legal rights? The Perecman Firm, P.L.L.C. is available to speak with workers and local residents across New York City and the state of New York. Contact us 24/7 for a free consultation.


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