Can federal employees get workers’ compensation for covid-19?
The spread of COVID-19 has created changes in the employment landscape. The federal government has introduced several programs to compensate workers for lost income due to mandated workplace restrictions.
While the majority of non-essential workers experienced forced workplace closures that left them either working from home or not working at all, essential workers continued to perform their job duties despite the danger COVID-19 poses.
Unfortunately, thousands of federal workers had become ill from COVID-19 by July 2020, approximately 4 months into the pandemic event. Since then, questions have arisen over whether these workers qualify for workers’ compensation or other benefits to cover their time away from work and related medical expenses.
How COVID-19 has impacted federal government workers
Since health agencies around the world declared the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, federal employees across several departments have contracted the virus. The government agencies that account for a majority of the cases include Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs
Additionally, several sub-agencies have also reported COVID-19 infections. Customs and Border Patrol and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have separately reported thousands of COVID-19 infections among their employees.
Approximately 4,000 federal employees and families—on behalf of 60 deceased federal workers—have filed claims for workplace injury benefits related to COVID-19.
Federal government workers have also launched a class-action lawsuit against the Trump administration. The lawsuit was originally filed in March 2020. Federal employees from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. military, DHS and other agencies joined the lawsuit later to request additional compensation for exposure to COVID-19 while performing their job duties.
Can federal employees receive workers’ compensation?
Under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA), federal employees who develop COVID-19 while on the job are entitled to receive workers’ compensation benefits.
The Division of Federal Employees’ Compensation processes and adjudicates federal workers’ claims, manages ongoing cases, pays benefits to injured workers and helps injured or ill employees return back to work when they receive medical clearance to do so.
In the event that a federal worker becomes fatally injured or contracts an illness that causes the worker’s death, the Division of Federal Employees’ Compensation pays survivor benefits to eligible family members who file a claim.
COVID-19 has created new challenges in the workplace, forcing workers, employers and insurers to reconsider how they handle issues like safety protocols, workplace injuries and workers’ compensation benefits.
Potential challenges to federal workers claiming benefits for COVID-19
It is often challenging for healthcare workers to determine the moment a patient contracted COVID-19. Therefore, some workers may not be able to produce concrete proof the origin of their case is work-related.
The Division of Federal Employees’ Compensation assigns a high-risk label to jobs that require frequent, in-person, close proximity contacts with the public. Examples of high-risk occupations include first responders, law enforcement and frontline medical and health personnel. These workers are more likely to frequently encounter instances of exposure to COVID-19 through coughs, sneezes, bodily fluids and other known and potentially unknown means of transmitting the coronavirus.
When high-risk workers file a claim for workers’ comp after contracting COVID-19, there is an implicit recognition that there is a higher likelihood the worker contracted the virus on the job.
Getting compensation after contracting COVID-19 while on a federal job
The federal workers’ comp process differs slightly depending on the risk level assigned to the employee’s job. When high-risk workers file a claim, the Federal Employees Program (operated by the Office of Workers’ Compensation Program) automatically infers that the nature of the worker’s job was the proximate cause of the worker contracting COVID-19. The employee may receive continuation pay for up to 45 days if the worker files a claim within 30 days of becoming ill and if the worker’s employer supports the claim.
If a worker in a job that is not high-risk files a claim for compensation after contracting COVID-19, they must provide a factual statement and evidence regarding how the exposure took place. The employer must also provide information regarding the worker’s exposure to COVID-19 and indicate whether they are supporting or disputing the worker’s claim.
Similar to employees in high-risk occupations, if an employee who works in a lower-risk occupation files a claim for compensation within 30 days of the illness and if the employee’s employer supports the claim, the employee may receive compensation for up to 45 days.
Contact an experienced workers’ compensation attorney near you
Many workers file for workers’ compensation on their own. While it is possible to file a claim without legal counsel, it’s always best to consult an experienced and knowledgeable workers’ comp lawyer who can help you understand how much compensation you are entitled to receive and help you provide the necessary evidence.
In some cases, an employer may contribute to an employee contracting COVID-19 due to failure to follow safety guidelines. In these cases, the employee may be entitled to additional compensation.