Lawmakers Open Hearing on Legislation to Ease Workers’ Comp Claims for COVID-19

In July of last year, Gov. Ned Lamont signed an executive order establishing a presumption of eligibility for workers’ compensation claims related to COVID-19. This meant that employees required to work in person during the height of the pandemic, from March 10 to May 20, who contracted COVID-19 would be presumed to have contracted the virus at work, making them eligible for workers’ compensation. 

Employers could still contest a claim, but the executive order ostensibly helped essential workers access deserved benefits in the midst of a pandemic, when substantiating a claim of an infection in the workplace would be especially challenging.

But a year into the pandemic, many employees who likely contracted COVID-19 at work did so outside of the timeframe established by the executive order, leaving them unable to access workers’ compensation without meeting the high bar for proving their claims.

“This isn’t complicated,” said Democratic State Sen. Julie Kushner, Labor Committee co-chair. “We set up a workers’ compensation system to deal with injuries at work. We have no other system. We can’t go to the courts and have workers file a lawsuit against their employers to get the benefits they’re due.” 

In the case of correction officer Sean Howard, who contracted COVID-19 in July, the lapse of the executive order means that he has been unable to access workers’ compensation despite having no doubt, he says, that he contracted the illness on the job at Cheshire Correctional Complex. Howard is still battling the virus, which he says has led to a permanent heart condition and scarring and damage to his heart lining.

Lawmakers are hoping to help workers like Howard with a House Bill 6478, which would establish a presumption of eligibility throughout the course of the pandemic, retroactively placing the burden of proof on employers to show that essential workers did not contract COVID-19 in the workplace. 

“This isn’t complicated,” said Democratic State Sen. Julie Kushner, Labor Committee co-chair. “We set up a workers’ compensation system to deal with injuries at work. We have no other system. We can’t go to the courts and have workers file a lawsuit against their employers to get the benefits they’re due.” 

The bill would also raise the workers’ compensation burial benefit, which covers funeral expenses for those who die as a direct result of contracting COVID-19 at work, from the current $4,000 to $20,000. Rhode Island currently provides a $20,000 allowance and New York provides $12,500. 

“In trying to help workers who legitimately need help through this pandemic, this bill has open-ended issues that could possibly and quite probably really put some burden on local taxpayers and local property owners,” said Matthew Knickerbocker, first selectman of Bethel. “It goes too far in some instances and puts pressure on taxpayers that are already enormously burdened.” 

In Thursday’s labor committee hearing, by late afternoon a number of municipal leaders had testified against the bill, citing concerns about costs to employers and municipalities. 

Brian O’Connor, director of public policy for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said the bill was one of the most disruptive and harmful proposals concerning workers’ compensation to come out in a long time, particularly from a municipal employer and business perspective. 

“In trying to help workers who legitimately need help through this pandemic, this bill has open-ended issues that could possibly and quite probably really put some burden on local taxpayers and local property owners,” said Matthew Knickerbocker, first selectman of Bethel. “It goes too far in some instances and puts pressure on taxpayers that are already enormously burdened.” 

Chairman Stephen Morelli of the state’s Workers’ Compensation Commission also testified in the labor committee hearing, and said that since the start of the pandemic, 3,123 COVID-19 workers’ compensation claims have been filed, but that his office did not know how many of those claims occurred during the window of the governor’s executive order, nor was the commission able to report how many claims were approved, denied, or still pending. 

According to Morelli, the normal process for a claim is that a worker files it, and then the employer generally denies it, as the employer only has a 28 day window to offer a denial. After the denial, employees can request a hearing to appeal. Morelli said that only 295 claimants requested hearings, meaning that the vast majority of claims were either approved within 28 days or denied and not appealed. 

“Employers and insurance companies benefit by having to not pay out claims, and claimants often ask to delay because they are waiting for certain reports to come in from doctors,” Shafner said. “Commissioners benefit too, because it’s easy enough for them to tell the parties to just come back for another hearing in eight weeks. The system has built-in institutional delays that everyone sort of accepts as the norm, but the injured worker is the one who suffers from it when their case ends up in no-man’s land.” 

Labor committee co-chair, Democratic State Rep. Robyn Porter, questioned whether those numbers were actually indicative of a functioning system. 

“I’m thinking maybe those were the people who knew they could ask for a hearing,” Porter said. “Do you feel that most people that go through this workers’ compensation process understand that they have a right to a hearing?” 

Morelli emphasized that people who claim workers’ compensation receive an information packet detailing their right to request a hearing, and said he thinks that “people who can commence a claim are familiar enough with the system to understand that they can ask for a hearing, so there shouldn’t be situations where people don’t know they can avail themself of a hearing request.” 

Even if the legislation passes, significant barriers to receiving workers’ compensation would remain, advocates say. In a press conference hosted by the Connecticut AFL-CIO in advance of the hearing, multiple essential workers shared their stories of contracting COVID-19 at work but being denied workers’ compensation. 

One of those workers, Virginia Ligi, a correctional officer at Cheshire Correctional Institute, contracted COVID-19 in April, during the window covered by the governor’s executive order. Nearly a year later, Ligi said that she has still not been able to access workers’ compensation benefits. 

“Workers’ comp is a no-fault system,” Shafner said. “If you became injured because you didn’t tie your shoes, you still have a workers’ comp claim. If your employer leaves the floor wet and you slip and get injured, you have a workers’ comp claim. No matter if the employer or injured worker is negligent, it’s all still a workers’ comp claim.”

According to Nathan Shafner, chairman of the Workers’ Compensation Section of the CT Trial Lawyers’ Association and partner with Embry, Neusner, Arscott & Shafner, there are many reasons individual workers’ compensation claims can get lost in the shuffle, even with a presumption of eligibility, noting that depending on the case, it can be in any party’s best interest to delay hearings.

“Employers and insurance companies benefit by having to not pay out claims, and claimants often ask to delay because they are waiting for certain reports to come in from doctors,” Shafner said. “Commissioners benefit too, because it’s easy enough for them to tell the parties to just come back for another hearing in eight weeks. The system has built-in institutional delays that everyone sort of accepts as the norm, but the injured worker is the one who suffers from it when their case ends up in no-man’s land.” 

If the legislation becomes law, it would cover anyone who has contracted COVID-19 on the job since the start of the pandemic. And as the vaccine rollout continues, with less than half of corrections staff opting to receive the shot, Shafner said that even if a worker chose not to be vaccinated and then contracted COVID-19 on the job, they would be eligible for workers’ compensation. 

“Workers’ comp is a no-fault system,” Shafner said. “If you became injured because you didn’t tie your shoes, you still have a workers’ comp claim. If your employer leaves the floor wet and you slip and get injured, you have a workers’ comp claim. No matter if the employer or injured worker is negligent, it’s all still a workers’ comp claim.”

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