There are no special rules for COVID-19 cases in North Carolina Workers’ Comp law. A coronavirus case is evaluated like other Worker’s Comp cases – to be covered, it must be either an accident or an occupational disease.
Getting coronavirus from work is more likely an occupational disease than an accident. Workers’ Comp covers occupational diseases (including COVID) if the employee got the disease from their work and if their work puts them at higher risk for the disease than the general public. Health care workers and first responders are the most likely to be able to meet these two tests. OSHA has said that health care workers and first responders are at much higher risk of contracting COVID than the general public.
Although less common, COVID could qualify as an accident in Workers’ Comp. An accident is defined as something out of the ordinary or unexpected. If someone is working at a lab that processes COVID tests and a testing vial breaks, and the employee gets the virus, that may qualify as a Workers’ Comp accident.
In either type of case, success depends on having support from the employee’s doctors. If the doctor says it is more likely than not that the workplace exposure caused the employee’s COVID, success is more likely. If the doctor is not willing to state that opinion, it will be very difficult to prevail.
What benefits are available from Workers’ Comp for COVID? The employee will receive two-thirds of their average weekly wage while out of work recovering. (Week one is a waiting week, but if the employee is out for three weeks or more, they pick up a check for the waiting week.) Medical treatment is paid for – no deductibles or co-pays like with health insurance. If the employee has permanent injury, like damage to the lungs or other organs, there is compensation for that as well.
It is illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee for filing a Workers’ Comp claim, for being injured on the job, or for contracting an occupational disease. An employer that fires, demotes, or takes other adverse action against the employee may have to pay damages.
If a worker cannot meet the tests for a Workers’ Comp case, remember that the federal law called Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA) requires employers of fewer than 500 employees to give up to two weeks of paid leave to an employee who has COVID, or who has COVID symptoms and is awaiting test results. This leave is for however long it takes for negative tests results to come back, or until the COVID symptoms pass, up to two weeks (at 100% of pay, not two-thirds as in Workers’ Comp). For employees with a mild case, FFCRA leave may pay them in full for the time they must be out. Of course, it falls short for workers with complications or more serious COVID infections. For those workers, it becomes more important to see if their coronavirus exposure can be successfully handled as a Workers’ Comp case.
Kim K. Steffan is an attorney with Steffan & Associates, P.C. in Hillsborough. She can be reached at (919) 732-7300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.