COVID-19 is a new disease caused by the coronavirus that is causing unprecedented, widespread and detrimental effects across the globe. As a collective society, our priority must always be the safety and health of everyone in our community. While many businesses are temporarily closed in an effort to flatten the curve and stop the spread of this deadly disease, there remains a large population of workers who are on the front lines, risking their health to provide essential products and services. These high-risk employees will likely have questions about their rights if they were to contract the disease while on the job. In this blog, we will address the challenging questions that will eventually need to be answered about Rhode Island’s Workers' Compensation System and your rights should you contract COVID-19 from your place of employment.
Rhode Island’s Measures to Control the Pandemic & Keep Workers Safe
First, it is important to summarize the actions taken in our state to protect employees. In a report released on March 17, WalletHub identified which states have been the most aggressive against the coronavirus thus far. At the time of the study, Rhode Island ranked number one.
In a drastic measure to stop the spread of the deadly virus, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo signed Executive Order 20-09 on March 22, 2020 directing all non-essential businesses to close.
Non-essential businesses include: theaters, cinemas, sporting events, bowling alleys and others, as well as close-contact businesses like gyms, fitness centers, hair salons and barbershops, nail salons, spas and tattoo parlors. Restaurants are allowed to be open and serve take-out food, beer and wine only. All business service personnel - including, but not limited to, accountants, lawyers, human resources and procurement professionals - that can work from home are required to do so. As a result of the Governors’ mandates, tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders will mitigate their risk of contracting COVID-19 in the workplace and spreading the disease to others.
Essential businesses include: health care, emergency services, food and agriculture, energy, water and sewage treatment, transportation, information technology, hazardous materials, financial services, chemical, and defense-industrial sectors. Currently, this list also includes the manufacturing and construction industries. Many of these “essential” businesses and their employees are playing a vital role in virus response from caring for the sick to providing badly needed supplies.
Will Workers’ Compensation Cover You If You Contract the Coronavirus at Work?
The answer is complicated and it is strongly advised that you seek an attorney experienced in Workers’ Compensation claims. To summarize, Workers’ Compensation in Rhode Island is a no fault insurance designed to provide assistance to employees injured on the job for their medical expenses and/or lost wages. Covered employees who are injured at work or who become ill from working may be eligible to collect workers' compensation benefits.
The coronavirus would fall under the category of an “occupational disease,” which according to R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-34-1(3) is "a disease which is due to causes and conditions which are characteristic or peculiar to a particular trade, occupation, process of employment.”
Disability arising from any cause connected with employment is noted in R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-31-1(33) as a compensable occupational disease and is therefore treated as a personal injury. Moreover, disabled employees are entitled to compensation if the occupational disease is due to the nature of the employment (R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-34-3 and §4). Prime examples include first responders and health care workers. In these cases, the worker's occupation must have a greater likelihood of contracting the disease because of their job. Therefore, under certain circumstances, claims from health care providers and first responders involving COVID-19 may be allowed. Other claims that meet certain criteria for exposure will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Insurance companies will likely be fighting hard to deny these types of claims. In their investigation, insurance specialists will consider the following:
Was there an increased risk or greater likelihood of contracting the condition due to the worker's occupation, ex: first responders and health care workers?
Had it not been for their job, would the worker have been exposed to the coronavirus?
Can the worker identify a specific source or event during the performance of his or her employment that resulted in exposure to the coronavirus?
When Will a Claim Likely Be Denied?
If the above criteria cannot be proved, there is a high likelihood your claim may be denied by your employer’s insurance company. In addition, when the contraction of COVID-19 is incidental to the workplace or common to all employment (ex: someone employed at an office job who contracts the condition from a fellow employee), the claim will likely be denied.
Summary & Tips to Keep Employees Safe
In summary, Sheeley Law anticipates this issue may be litigated in the coming years, given the widespread nature and severe impact COVID-19 is having on our community. It is arguable that for employees such as cashiers, waitstaff, or other individuals who work closely with the general public, that contraction of COVID-19 is a condition that is characteristic or peculiar to the particular trade, occupation or employment and may also be compensable.
For all workers, regardless of specific exposure risks, it is always a good practice to:
Wash your hands, frequently, with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. When soap and running water are unavailable, use an alcohol-based hand rub with at least 60% alcohol.
Avoid touching hour eyes, nose, or mouth.
Stay home if you are feeling sick.
Where protection, such as face masks and gloves.
Maintain a safe distance of at least six feet at all possible times.
Sheeley Law is focused on the health and safety of the community. We will keep you informed as more information on COVID-19 becomes available. If you or a loved one contracted the coronavirus at your place of employment, your rights need to be protected. Attorney Ann Sheeley has over 25 years of experience handling Workers’ Compensation cases and a proven track record of helping her clients obtain maximum compensation for their injuries, losses and pain and suffering For a free consultation, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 401-619-5555.