Should California Enact Emergency COVID-19 Protections for Essential Workers?

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Governor Newsom Should Enact Emergency COVID-19 Protections for California’s Essential Workers

Governor Newsom Should Enact Emergency COVID-19 Protections for California’s Essential Workers

Apr 2, 2020

On March 19, the California Labor Federation issued a letter to California Governor, Gavin Newsom, expressing concerns over worker safety in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The letter included a call for a workers’ compensation presumption that a COVID-19 exposure or positive test is employment-related for essential workers (in other words, the letter requested protections for essential workers who are infected with coronavirus). 

The letter asserted that, “Workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic put their lives at risk just doing their jobs. If they are infected with COVID-19, they should be covered by workers’ compensation.” 

As we are all aware, workers in businesses that are deemed essential under the coronavirus shelter-in-place order throughout California are in effect putting themselves at risk to maintain a semblance of normalcy in everyday life, and ensure everyone has access to critical supplies such as food and medicine. A workers’ compensation ‘presumption’ in light of the coronavirus circumstances would mean that workers who contract COVID-19 and are forced into quarantine (and therefore unable to work while potentially facing considerable medical bills) would be able to file for workers’ compensation benefits with the presumption that they became infected with the virus while working at an essential business. The same holds true for wrongful death claims if, in a hypothetical worst-case scenario, a worker at a hospital, supermarket, pharmacy, or other essential business becomes infected with COVID-19, and eventually dies from complications related to the virus. 

Whether or not workers’ compensation claims related to COVID-19 will be deemed legitimate and ultimately paid is a question that will likely be answered on a case-by-case basis and will vary from state-to-state depending on if and when emergency legislation is passed to protect these workers.

Under most current laws and regulations, if a worker becomes ill or dies from coronavirus exposure, the burden of proof falls almost entirely on that individual’s legal representative to somehow prove that the infection did indeed occur at the individual’s place of work, and they are therefore entitled to workers’ compensation benefits or a wrongful death suit. That can be extremely difficult to prove, and defense lawyers representing the workplace entity will certainly make the argument that the infection could have come from anywhere given the shortage of available tests, how asymptomatic individuals are believed to be a main source of the spread of infection, and how little we know about transmission rates in specific areas of the state. This is why it is so imperative that a workers’ compensation presumption is enacted to cover workers’ compensation claims. 

Some states, such as Washington, have taken steps to provide workers’ compensation protections for health care workers and first responders. In Washington, the new policy “may provide benefits” to such workers during the time they’re quarantined after being exposed to coronavirus on the job, but it’s important to note that under the policy each claim will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. That’s a good start, and health care workers and first responders should absolutely be covered if exposed to coronavirus, but it simply does not go far enough to protect workers. 

For starters, the policy is vaguely written and only applies under “certain circumstances.” Additionally, even if those circumstances are met and approved by those reviewing the claims, the fact that the policy explicitly states that claims from health care workers and first responders “may be allowed” is woefully inadequate, and leaves many workers vulnerable to subjective determinations by state bureaucrats.

California is the nation’s most populous state, and current estimates demonstrate how severely we have been impacted by coronavirus, with the third highest number of confirmed infections being reported. Therefore, blanket legislation that covers all essential workers in all industries is absolutely necessary during this critical time. 

Governor Newsom should issue an executive order mandating that all essential workers affected by coronavirus are covered by workers’ compensation benefits. Many concerned labor groups, including the United Food and Commercial Workers, are actively entreating the Governor for the passage of such legislation. 

We at Dordulian Law Group fully agree with the letter issued by the California Labor Federation, as well as the additional requests on behalf of multiple labor groups. We adamantly believe blanket legislation via executive order that covers all essential workers currently on the front lines in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic is critical. It is a necessary step to providing the very workers who are seemingly putting their lives and health at risk for all Californians with the coverage they deserve. 

Current measures on behalf of Governor Newsom and the California legislature to assist workers rendered unemployed due to the economic impact of coronavirus are important and should be recognized as such. Those measures, announced on March 12, include:

  • If you’re unable to work because you are caring for an ill or quarantined family member with COVID-19 you may qualify for Paid Family Leave (PFL).
  • If you’re unable to work due to medical quarantine or illness, you may qualify for Disability Insurance. Those who have lost a job or have had their hours reduced for reasons related to COVID-19 may be able to partially recover their wages by filing an unemployment insurance claim.
  • If a worker or a family member is sick or for preventative care when civil authorities recommend quarantine, workers may use accrued paid sick leave in accordance with the law.
  • If workers are unable to do their usual job because they were exposed to and contracted COVID-19 during the regular course of their work, they may be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. 

However, as with the example of the state of Washington, these measures are a good start but simply do not go far enough to protect workers on the front lines at essential businesses. Stipulating that workers exposed to COVID-19 “may be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits” is simply unacceptable.

The fact is, if these workers stopped showing up for work due to fears of being neglected if they contract coronavirus, our economy and way of life would be dramatically altered for the worse. We need to give workers the assurances they require and demonstrate how they are appreciated and, most importantly, protected by the state of California.

Anything less than that is simply unacceptable. 

Many are currently hoping that Governor Newsom will announce something in the vein of an executive order or sweeping emergency legislation that addresses this dire situation impacting thousands of workers. But acting swiftly is so vital, and every day without such protections leaves workers vulnerable, which could lead to dire consequences.

Governor Newsom must enact a conclusive presumption that cuts through all the litigation and proverbial red tape that takes into consideration each and every one of the workers that continue to risk their health and go to work each day during this crisis. Undoubtedly, the likelihood that they are exposed to COVID-19 on a daily basis is profound. Consequently, swift action is needed (and keep in mind that these protections for workers don’t simply affect them, they affect all of us, as we need access to groceries, pharmacies, hospitals, etc., and without workers there to staff such businesses, we could all be facing bleak times ahead). 

The workers’ compensation presumption must cover employees deemed essential by Governor Newsom’s March 19 executive order to shelter-in-place, as well as any employees deemed essential thereafter, and any disaster service workers. 

Full hospital, surgical, medical treatment, disability, and death benefits need to be covered under an executive order from the Governor. It is the least that can be done in the event that a worker contracts COVID-19 while on the job. 

If you have been infected with coronavirus (COVID-19) and it has either impacted your ability to work via mandatory quarantine, has left you ill and facing mounting medical bills, or has resulted in the death of someone you know, please contact Dordulian Law Group today for a free consultation. 

We are monitoring the daily developments as they pertain to workers’ compensation benefits available to those affected by coronavirus, and will be ready to fight for you and defend your rights once the new legislation is in place. 

Go See Sam