Coronavirus Causation Conundrum: Proving COVID-19 Exposure in the Workplace
Coronavirus cases continue to rise in the United States, including in Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, more and more people are returning to work every day as schools, business, and other public spaces reopen. Given this reality, the risk of an employee being exposed to coronavirus, and subsequently developing COVID-19, is becoming more likely every day. In previous blog posts, we have discussed the avenues through which a worker may be compensated when they contract COVID-19 at work. However, in this post we tackle a difficult task that workers are faced with in order to receive that compensation: proving that the worker actually contracted COVID-19 on the job.
Causation in the Workers’ Compensation Act
If an infected worker seeks compensation from their employer for a work-related injury, then they must do so under the Workers’ Compensation Act (the “Act”). Under the Act, the default rule is that in order for a worker to receive worker’s compensation benefits due to COVID-19 exposure in the workplace, the worker must stablish a causal relationship of the disease to a workplace exposure within a reasonable degree of medical certainty. For example, an employee could establish that the only person confirmed to have tested positive for COVID-19 that the employee came into contact with was a manager or other worker with whom they only interacted with on the job. If that evidence is supplemented by evidence of negative tests among the worker’s family members or other people close to them, then a judge could potentially find that a worker has met their burden.
However, depending upon the worker’s profession, the burden of proof for causation may be lower. In special circumstances, a worker may be entitled to a “rebuttable presumption” of causation under the Workers’ Compensation Act. If the worker contracted an “occupational disease” as defined by the Act, then it is presumed that the worker contracted the disease on the job unless the employer produces sufficient evidence that it was caused by a different source. A worker is entitled to a rebuttable presumption of causation for an occupational disease if the disease (1) is of the type exposed to by reason of their employment, (2) is causally related to the industry or occupation, and (3) the incidence of which is substantially greater in the industry or occupation than in the general population. For example, an ICU nurse who has been treating COVID-19 patients may be able to argue that they are entitled to a “rebuttable presumption” that their COVID-19 infection was caused by their work environment. Unfortunately, due to the recency of the COVID-19 pandemic, this argument has yet to be substantially tested.
Difficulties of Proving COVID-19 Exposure in the Workplace
There are two main sources of difficulty in establishing that a worker was exposed to COVID-19 on the job. The first hurdle is the recency of the virus and the pandemic. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the first instance of community spread in the United States (meaning the individual did not recently travel abroad or have direct exposure with a known patient with COVID-19), did not occur until February of 2020. Despite extensive scientific research, there is
still much we do not know about the virus and how it spreads, making presenting evidence of potential exposure in court all-the-more difficult. Because this is a relatively new disease, workers, companies, and courts alike have yet to substantially familiarize themselves with these issues.
The second hurdle a worker faces in proving they were exposed to COVID-19 at work is the multitude of other places where an individual is at risk of being exposed to the coronavirus. Pennsylvanians are currently required to wear masks whenever they leave their homes with little exception, and for good reason. Grocery stores, restaurants, gyms, movie theaters, and other public venues all provide an opportunity for unrelated people to congregate in close proximity with one another, increasing the likelihood of transmission if a carrier of COVID-19 is among them. This can make it more difficult for a worker to prove that they were infected with the coronavirus on the job, rather than at one of these other locations.
Contact Us Today for Help
Our firm is experienced in representing workers who were exposed to diseases while on the job. The worker’s compensation team at O’Donnell Law Offices can examine your case and determine what evidence is necessary to establish your exposure to COVID-19 at your place of work. If you or a loved one has been exposed to the coronavirus at work and developed COVID-19 as a result, contact an experienced worker’s compensation at O’Donnell Law Offices at 570-821-5717 or online today.