Workers’ Compensation a Point of Contention for Essential Workers Facing Lengthy Recoveries from COVID-19

For years Denise Rodgers has driven the Yale-New Haven Health shuttle. She transports doctors, nurses and other health professionals from parking lots across south-central Connecticut to the York Street and St. Raphael hospitals.

On March 17, before anyone was wearing a mask on her bus, as the health system was just identifying the first evidence of the pandemic in Connecticut, Rodgers and her husband fell sick.

Both spent several weeks in Yale’s intensive care unit and after 48 days on a ventilator, after Rodgers had already been discharged, her husband died.

According to Sal Luciano, President of the Connecticut AFL-CIO which represents several private and public sector unions in the state, it has now been more than six weeks since Rodgers — still recovering at home — has been paid. Her claim for worker’s compensation was denied.

“Our members almost always get a denial within 28 days of filing,” Luciano said. “Once they get denied, then the employee has two months to put a claim together to explain why it shouldn’t be denied. Then they wait 120 days, and then, if it is still denied, they can appeal it in court.”

Although Governor Ned Lamont has mandated 14 days of paid leave for anyone testing positive for COVID-19, worker’s compensation beyond that, according to Luciano, has not changed for those filing during the pandemic.

In New Hampshire and Florida and other states, Democratic and Republican governors have established a legal presumption to accept COVID-19 claims from all essential employees who claim to have contracted the virus at work.

“We are calling Governor Lamont to approve all COVID-19 claims for essential employees for this time frame as other states have done,” Luciano said. “Without the presumption they have questions, like did they go to church or the grocery store, and can use that to deny it. They are doing this even with corrections officers that work 16 hour shifts and sleep in hotels.”

Without receiving the 50 percent of her salary that would come from worker’s compensation as she recovers, Rodgers is having difficulty paying her bills and putting food on the table.

“After talking to the Governor, ironically, I think there is a worker’s compensation presumption, and it is that people can wait,” Luciano said. “He said ‘what’s the problem, they will probably grant it eventually.’”

According to Luciano, 515 similar claims have been submitted to the state as of June 1, and none of the workers that he represents have had a claim approved.

According to Brian Larsen, a corrections officer and union leader of Local 387, the reason given on denied claims is that the contracted company – Gallagher Bassett – has not received direction from the Governor.

“They say it’s a communicable disease, so until they’ve received direction they will deny it,” Larsen said.

According to the Department of Administrative Services, however, 48 claims for COVID-19 have been granted, and those claims that were denied, lacked medical information when they were submitted..

There is no sign from the Governor’s office that an executive order is forthcoming to change the current standard for processing claims.

“Thanks to the leadership of Chairman Steve Morelli, Connecticut’s Workers Compensation Commission has continued to operate throughout this pandemic. Connecticut workers who contract COVID-19 at work have the right to file a workers’ compensation claim and to appeal any denial of that claim to our hardworking commission,” said David Bednarz, press secretary for Lamont. “The administration is keeping careful track of those claims and learning from essential workers about their experience with that system.”

The state has adopted a model of “paying without prejudice,” according to John McKay, spokesperson for the Department of Administrative Services. In other words, the state is paying for COVID-19 testing and preliminary care for those diagnosed positive rather than guaranteeing workers’ compensation. 

“To remove financial barriers to treatment and relieve employees’ anxiety about returning to work, we encourage all employers to follow the example of Connecticut’s health insurance companies and waive out-of-pocket expenses for employees who need COVID-19 treatment,” Bednarz said.