Apr 23rd, 2020
This has been on the minds of many of people contacting my office in the past weeks. What if you contract COVID-19 at work?
First, Missouri law says that you must prove that the number one cause of your condition or injury, above all other possible causes, is work, whether that be a broken leg, hepatitis, or the Corona virus. Contracting an illness like hepatitis or COVID-19 is harder to prove than falling off of a ladder at work and breaking a leg.
So, from the beginning there is a hurdle in proving that you contracted the virus at work, and not elsewhere. This would be easier if you didn’t leave home for several weeks or months for any reason other than going to work as a nurse or healthcare provider. However, if you work in the construction field, work outside, don’t ride in a truck with coworkers, stay far away from other coworkers while on the job, but you have gone other places like shopping, gatherings, or restaurants, your ability to prove that you got COVID-19 at work would be virtually impossible.
But there is much more to this issue for all Missouri workers.
On April 8, 2020 Missouri Governor Parsons executed a rule entitled “Presumption of Occupational Disease for First Responders.” The rule “creates a presumption that First Responders infected by or quarantined due to COVID-19 are deemed to have contracted a contagious or communicable occupational disease arising out of and in the course of the performance of their employment.” First responders who get the virus or who are quarantined because of it automatically have a right to Workers’ Compensation benefits. However, this doesn’t mean that the employer will automatically provide benefits as you will likely need representation to push the issue.
To be clear, “first responder” has been defined as “law enforcement officer, firefighter or an emergency medical technician (EMT).” If you fit into these categories, you should contact us right away. I also think it is noteworthy that this rule does not currently apply to healthcare workers, but I believe it’s possible that Missouri could expand this definition to include them, and maybe others.
But if you work in another field, the story doesn’t end there.
First, any injury you get while working, or anything you suffer due to working longer hours or doing job duties not normally part of your job description should result in you hiring legal counsel and exploring a claim. Also, if you are experiencing psychiatric injury, this could also be covered. The stress and anxiety of working in the current environment is very real and can be life-changing. Do not hesitate to reach out for help if you are consumed with anxiety or fear about going to work. I believe this is a real injury as well; you should not be ignored just because your injury is not visible. I urge you to call us if this is something you’re experiencing.
If you are not a first responder and you contract COVID-19, there is case law that may still allow you to obtain benefits through the Workers’ Compensation system. In Smith v. Capital Region Medical Center, 412 S.W.3d 252 (2013), a healthcare worker contracted Hepatitis B. The original finders of fact determined that the employee could not prove the exact time and place he contracted the disease at work, so he was not entitled to benefits. However, the Missouri Supreme Court found in his favor, determining that it was “more likely than not” that he contracted it at work. They determined that, of all the places or experiences that could have exposed him to Hepatitis, no other place represented the same risk and the most probable source of this occupational disease was his work at the hospital. The employee received benefits after this holding by the Court.
This leads me to the conclusion that if you contracted COVID-19 and you work in the healthcare field, at a grocery store or other essential job, you could still be successful in arguing it came from work. However, one would have to consider your outside activities, and other places you’ve been.
Please note that what I’ve posted here only applies to MISSOURI. Also, this is new territory to lawyers and judges and there are many complicated legal issues at play here, so the hypotheticals above only scratch the surface of potential work-related contractions of COVID-19. For this reason, I urge you to contact me if you have questions about this issue.
I wish you health and safety, and gratitude as it is the hard-working people of Missouri who are putting their health at risk each day in these dangerous jobs. We are here for you.