Use Workers' Comp to Protect Front-Line Employees

He’s a security guard at a homeless shelter in New York City and he makes just above minimum wage -- $16 an hour. And last week he was diagnosed with COVID-19.

Can he absolutely prove he got it at work? He cannot. Should that disqualify him from receiving Workers' Comp to cover his salary during his illness? In a word: NO.

Some will argue it should – after all, it’s not as though he broke his leg falling on the job. But we believe the opposite is true: he should be covered, as should so many others, because COVID-19 is like no disease we’ve seen before, and carriers with no symptoms abound.

No one can prove our guard didn’t get the disease from a colleague or a resident. And the work he was doing is described as important amid the pandemic. So just as the Coronavirus is changing so much in our society, so too must it cause us to rethink the way we protect the livelihoods of those who are out there risking their lives to help flatten the curve.

This is, quite simply, a moral issue in these deeply challenging times, and the answer should be clear to all who believe in what is right.

The heroes of the pandemic are New York’s important workers of every race, color and creed. They are the health care providers, the first responders, and civil servants who are on the front lines, but also those workers who keep the grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations and other necessary stores and services open. They are workers like the security guard, who we represent (but choose not to identify for privacy reasons). To further complicate matters, many of these workers are independent or paid under the table, experiencing the ups-and-downs of being part of the gig economy. And every day, these workers leave home not knowing whether they may be at risk for infection.

It is time to assure these workers that they will be cared for if they fall ill with COVID-19 and can’t overcome the nearly impossible hurdle of proving, for example, that an infected co-worker sneezed on them. We cannot ask these people to risk their lives and then worry about the cost of treatment. They need to be assured that they will be able to pay the bills and, if they make the ultimate sacrifice, that their families will be financially safe.

We make our argument at a crucial inflection point in the lives and rights of American workers.

In 1911, a raging fire tore through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan, killing 146 garment workers. This unspeakable tragedy brought to light the injustices dealt to people injured while working, and New York enacted the Workers’ Compensation Law, which guaranteed health care and basic income to those injured at work. Companies were required to buy insurance to cover their employees.

Until the 1990s, the law evolved to meet the changing nature and place of work. Sadly, in the past two decades, what had been a gleaming example of a progressive government taking legislative action to protect their injured workers has regressed and seemingly puts the profits of the insurance industry first.

Now is the time to guarantee that all workers have streamlined access to benefits under New York’s workers’ compensation system. To safeguard the original intent of what the statue was to guarantee, to make sure that people who have the unfortunate circumstance of contracting COVID-19 or being injured on the job obtain the medical and lost wage benefits they deserve.

The disparate impact of the system was recently highlighted by economists James A. Parrot and Nicholas B. Martin, of The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs published a report titled, “Time for a Real Look at How the New York State Workers’ Compensation System Treats Workers.” The report exposed the inequities of the law in its application to both the high and low wage earner.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, legislation was introduced that would ensure that New York’s injured workers receive full compensation when unable to perform the job in which they were injured.

The legislation would create a presumption of permanent total disability in the event the injured person was found to be eligible for SSDI benefits as a result of the work injury. The legislation would also guarantee a hearing and decision in the native language of the worker and amended the administration of the system. All things as critical to those suffering from COVID-19 as those injured falling down a poorly maintained staircase.

Legislation has since been proposed in the New York State Senate and Assembly to amend the workers’ compensation law to specifically include COVID-19 infections and to expand protections for volunteer firefighters, ambulance crews and other frontline workers.

The proposed changes should be enacted to protect all workers suffering from COVID-19 as well as those injured in the regular course of employment to ensure that the everyday heroes of this pandemic receive full medical and monetary benefits in a timely manner now and in the future. You shouldn’t have to prove you got COVID-19 at work; the presumption should be there if you were working through the crises, and you contracted it. Period.

New York’s Workers Compensation Alliance urges the passage of the legislation proposed before and after the outbreak to protect New York’s heroes... our workers.

Read the print version of this op-ed in the Albany Times Union here.