With COVID-19 spreading rapidly, more and more people are becoming ill and missing work. This leaves businesses and employees with a dilemma they have never been faced with before: how to handle an employee needing time off for a mandatory quarantine.
Employers and employees are both left wondering whether they need to burn through their PTO, take unpaid days, or if worker’s compensation applies to this case.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the question of whether or not worker’s comp applies to COVID-19, the answer is: maybe. That’s not much help to employees already facing a lot of uncertainties, so we’re going to clear it up for you.
The differences between COVID-19 and other illness absences
While it’s not uncommon for employees to occasionally get sick, there is a big difference between contracting COVID-19 and other illnesses. With other illnesses, it is up to the employee to use their judgment as to whether or not to come to work. Therefore, it’s valid to mandate that said employee uses PTO to cover the absence and/or require a doctor’s note to validate the absence. In this case, however, the CDC is the one urging employees to stay home if they are experiencing any respiratory illnesses, and advised employers to be lenient with these cases.
“Do not require a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness to validate their illness or return to work, as health care provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely way,” the CDC stated.
This muddies the waters a little bit in terms of employers following their typical illness/PTO procedures when the CDC is encouraging something else.
Does worker’s comp cover COVID-19?
Due to the nature of worker’s compensation, claims will only be accepted if contracting the virus was a natural consequence of someone’s job. This is especially pertinent for healthcare and emergency services workers.
Joel Sacks, director of the Washington Department of Labor and Industries, announced that his state would take steps to ensure worker’s compensation protection for healthcare workers and first responders on the front line of the outbreak. If there is hard evidence of a work-related exposure and the individual contracts the virus, they can apply.
Individual states have nuances defining work-related illnesses, so read up on your state. Some states are also expanding the statute of limitations on filing COVID-19 related workers comp claims, so be sure to read up on those as well.
The grey area here is being able to provide hard evidence that the virus was contracted during work. With the rapid spread of the disease, there may be some pushback on claims since it’s difficult to prove that the workplace is the only place the virus could have been contracted. However, health care workers and first responders have the best chance of filing successful claims.
What about people who are not health care workers or first responders?
When it comes to people who are not health care workers or first responders, the grey area becomes even more grey. For these individuals, it's nearly impossible to provide evidence that the virus was contracted as a direct result of working duties. Things like commutes on public transportations and large conferences, although part of the daily routine of a job, might not be considered a direct result. In this case, claims might be denied.
So, what can employers do?
If worker’s compensation is not covering these cases, what happens? Employees may not have enough PTO days to cover the mandatory 14-day quarantine period. Even if they do have some PTO available, being forced to use it may scare an individual into not being honest about symptoms or diagnosis, which can be a major long-term issue for your company. On the contrast, making employees take unpaid days for an illness and mandatory quarantine is unethical, and not a recommended approach.
Instead, the Department of Labor and Industries encourages employees to continue paying workers who are quarantined, eliminating the need to file for worker’s compensation. The CDC has also encouraged employers to be flexible with, and consider revising, their paid time off policies during this time.
This is a global pandemic, an official National State of Emergency and as of March 18th the White House has evoked the Defense Production Act, so making exceptions to your PTO policy is in the best interest of your employees, your business, and your long-term success.
A note for federal employees
It’s important to note that these guidelines only apply to non-federal workers. Federal workers are subject to the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act. The U.S. Department of Labor Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs Division of Federal Employees’ Compensation just announced that all federal employees who contract COVID-19 while performing their job are eligible for compensation through this act.