Washington State Governor, Jay Inslee, declared a public health emergency on February 29, 2020 due to COVID 19.
Restaurants and many other businesses closed or operated remotely outside of the office and away from other employees. However, health care and other front-line workers continued to work with the public and or coworkers with risk of exposure to COVID. While personal protective equipment was required, health care and front-line workers nevertheless had increased risk of becoming infected with COVID in comparison to those working remotely during “shelter-in-place”.
In general, the Industrial Insurance Act covers workers who sustain an injury or disease within employment. Prior to the pandemic, to receive benefits for an occupational disease, all workers must prove their occupational disease was caused by conditions of their employment, opposed to life in general. Because COVID is not necessarily a distinctive presence in the workplace, and certain workers have a higher risk of becoming infected, Governor Inslee signed the Health Emergency Labor Standards Act (HELSA) and ESSB 5190 on May 11, 2021. This new law relieved the burden of frontline workers to prove they became infected with COVID in the scope of employment by providing presumptive coverage to such workers. The new statute specifically provides that “there exists a prima facie presumption that any infectious or contagious diseases that are transmitted through respiratory droplets or aerosols, or through contact with contaminated surfaces and are the subject of a public health emergency are occupational diseases under RCW 51.08.140 during a public health emergency”. This act also retroactively applies to COVID cases contracted on or after February 29, 2020 — the date the Governor declared the public health emergency.
The most obvious frontline workers benefiting from HELSA are health care workers who have had or likely has had direct contact with any person who has been exposed or tested positive to COVID. Other frontline workers benefitting from the Act include, first responders; nursing home and assisted living facility workers; workers performing food processing, manufacturing, distribution, or meat packing; farmworkers; maintenance, janitorial, and food service workers at any facility treating patients; public transit drivers and operators; employees of licensed child care facilities; employees of retail stores, which remain open to the public during the public health care emergency; employees of hotels, motels, or other transient accommodation; restaurant employees who have contact with the public or co-workers; certified home care aides who work primarily in the home of individuals receiving care; corrections officers and support employees working at a correctional institution; certain school district and higher education employees; and public library employees.
For the above mentioned workers, proof of a positive COVID test result from a medical provider is all that is required to establish the presumption that COVID was contracted in the course of employment. Workers who are not considered frontline workers as defined by HESLA, may also file a workers’ compensation claim for COVID but they are not afforded the presumption
that the disease was contracted in the course of employment; they must provide evidence that proves on a more probable than not basis there was a documented or probable work-related exposure such that there is a greater likelihood the disease was contracted in the course of employment.
When a claim for occupational disease based on COVID is allowed, the worker is entitled to all benefit entitlements available under the Industrial Insurance Act including medical treatment, time loss compensation, vocational retraining, and, if a worker’s disability from COVID or its complications result in permanent disability, such worker is entitled to a permanent partial disability award or a lifetime pension. Upon the death of a worker owing to COVID, the worker’s spouse would be entitled to spousal benefits. For frontline workers, time loss benefits begin the earliest of the first day missed from work, the day the worker was quarantined by a medical provider or public health official, or the day the worker received a positive COVID result.
If you believe you contracted COVID in the course of your employment as a frontline worker, or otherwise, contact Foster Law, PC for a free consultation relative to the benefits you may be entitled to through a workers’ compensation claim and how to best go about establishing an allowable claim.