When is COVID-19 Work-Related?
We believe that in Iowa, an employee will be deemed as having sustained an injury arising out of and in the course of employment if they can prove that they contracted the disease from a work exposure. The key issue for you is whether the employee was actually exposed at work, given the facts that we know about COVID-19. We know there can be a long incubation period. We know that it is prevalent throughout our community (we will have a better idea later about how many people were actually affected). We know that it is very easily transmitted and can live on surfaces for a significant amount of time. We also know that people are contagious even though they appear and feel healthy.
The key issue is whether the claimant can prove that they actually obtained the infection at work versus away from work. With COVID-19, we believe it will be scientifically impossible in most cases to determine where the exposure actually occurred. The analysis then becomes whether claimant has met his/her burden of proof to establish the injury occurred at work under circumstances where it is not possible to prove the source for an individual’s disease.
The current Workers’ Compensation Commissioner seems to be holding claimants to their standard of proof in these types of cases. In the past few years, he has issued several decisions denying benefits. In Douglas v. Vermeer Mfg., File No. 5062611 (App. Oct. 23, 2019), the claimant alleged an exposure to airborne particulates at work. Commissioner Cortes reversed the deputy’s finding that the pulmonary condition was work-related. He acknowledged that the workplace exposure possibly caused the pulmonary symptoms, however, he acknowledged that the exposure could have just as likely occurred at church, at the grocery store, etc. Therefore, he denied benefits. In McDonald v. EZ Payroll, File No. 5043916 (App. July 27, 2017), the Commissioner again reversed a deputy’s decision finding that the claimant had contracted Legionnaire’s disease through contaminated water spray at work. In this case, the defendants’ infectious disease specialist explained that it was impossible for the claimant to prove how or where he contracted the disease. Also, he explained that there were many non-occupational potential exposure areas. The Commissioner denied benefits.
It would appear that a mere possibility of exposure at work is not sufficient under the current Commissioner’s rulings to result in a compensable exposure claim.
If you receive a claim, we think it is very important that you evaluate two different things. First, why the claimant thinks he/she was exposed at work. It is important for you to evaluate all additional potential sources of exposure during the two weeks before claimant became sick. Second, ask them about personal contacts, people they have visited, whether they picked up prescriptions, groceries, had their car repaired, etc. We would suggest that you take a statement and talk with them about each and every person they came into contact within the days leading up to them feeling sick, all places they’ve traveled to, and all surfaces they’ve touched.