The global coronavirus outbreak has caused an unprecedented health and economic crisis throughout American society. Numerous organizations, businesses, and industries are facing challenges and questions they have never faced before. One of the more pressing concerns is the health of “essential” workers: people who are still leaving their home to perform their jobs so that others can shelter-in-place.
If you have been designated an essential employee, and contract COVID-19 on the job, can you file for workers’ compensation benefits? The answer to this question is “yes,” but making the claim could be challenging. You will want to talk to a Maryland workers’ compensation lawyer about how to proceed.
Maryland’s workers’ compensation and occupational disease vs. accidental injury
Maryland’s workers’ compensation laws ensure that any employee who is injured or comes down with an illness, as a result of his or her work activities, can receive certain benefits. These benefits are provided to cover income loss and medical expenses. The claim is filed as either an occupational disease or accidental injury depending on the facts. If you develop carpal tunnel syndrome by doing a repetitive motion for years at a time, that is an occupational disease case. If you develop carpal tunnel syndrome due to a nerve injury from your arm being crushed, that is an accidental injury. COVID-19 presents an interesting debate as to whether these cases should be handled as an occupational disease or accidental injury.
The Labor and Employment Section 9-101 of the Maryland Code defines an occupational disease as one developed by a covered employee:
- During the course of and as a result of employment; and
- That causes partial or total, temporary or permanent incapacitation to the employee
At the same time, Labor and Employment Section 9-502(d) of the Maryland Code directs that compensation may only be paid if:
- The occupational disease that led to the disability or death:
- Was the result of the nature of the employment in which the occupational disease hazards existed and the employee covered was employed prior to the date of his or her disablement; or
- Exhibits symptoms consistent with those known to occur from exposure to a chemical, physical, or biological agent that is linked to the type of employment the covered employee was at before his or her disablement;
- A reasonable conclusion may be made based on the weight of the evidence that the disease was acquired due to the employment of the covered employee
Based on the statute mentioned above and current case law, many essential workers showing up to work in the state of Maryland during the pandemic and contracting COVID-19 in the process will have a case that their disease is an “occupational disease” eligible for compensation. There is also an argument that contracting COVID-19 would be considered an “accidental injury” because the exposure to a sick person within the course of employment is what got them sick, similar to if they contracted a disease by being stuck with a used needle. The circumstances of an employee’s exposure may dictate how the claim is filed. If you know you were exposed to a person who tested positive in a particular manner accidental injury may be the appropriate way to file the claim. If you work at a nursing home with many patients who were infected but cannot pinpoint one specific exposure then occupational disease may be appropriate.
A worker seeking compensation based on a COVID-19 (or other future) pandemic illness will have to clearly describe the nature of his or her job duties and how those duties during the course of a dangerous pandemic could result in contracting the coronavirus. The employee will have to show the likelihood that the disease was contracted on the job as opposed to some other location. An experienced Maryland workers’ compensation attorney may be able to find statistical data that indicates a high risk of infection at the essential job compared to other places.
Essential workers likely to be eligible for COVID-19 workers’ compensation
As is obvious, hospital employees and other healthcare workers exposed to the coronavirus have the strongest case for compensation. However, other essential workers such as checkout clerks in grocery stores, restaurants and fast food workers, and others who stand near or face-to-face with dozens or even hundreds of customers per day exchanging items clearly have a potentially strong case as well. Police officers, correctional officers, nursing home employees are other classes of essential workers who may have a strong claim for compensability when it comes to any pandemic, including the current COVID-19 threat.
Essential workers are also covered for standard injuries experienced by many kinds of workers other than those caused by a pandemic infection. These include slip and fall injuries, burn injuries, and more.
In the meantime, the question of compensability for COVID-19 infections in Maryland is a new one and falls outside some of the past designations of occupational disease and accidental injury. However, existing statutes and case law argue for the possibility that contracting the coronavirus may qualify as a compensable workers’ compensation claim.
At Plaxen & Adler, P.A., we understand the various risks that Maryland’s essential workers face in the workplace, including those involving the current COVID-19 pandemic. If you have sustained an illness or injury on the job as one of America’s essential workers, we are here to help you pursue any and all compensation you deserve. To arrange a free case review with one of our experienced Maryland workers’ compensation attorneys, please call us today at 410.730.7737, or complete our contact form.