In light of recent news, many questions are being asked about the coronavirus (COVID-19) right now.
Some of these questions include:
- Can I get the virus at work?
- If I get sick at work, do I have a workers’ compensation case?
- What will happen if my employer refuses to let me come to work if I have been hurt on the job because they are closed due to the coronavirus?
These are excellent questions and we will explore them, along with other work-related infectious disease questions in this article.
Before we get into the compensability of occupational diseases and the coronavirus, let’s look and see if we can determine what the coronavirus is and how it can be transmitted.
What is COVID-19, and can I get the virus at work?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) has provided a detailed description of what the coronavirus is. A “coronavirus” is the name for a relatively common type of virus that has crown-like spikes on its surface. The current virus is a special strain of coronavirus that had not been identified before.
Some viruses affect humans, and some only affect animals. In the current case, it appears that COVID-19 is an animal-based virus that somehow began affecting humans. The origins of this specific virus aren’t completely known, but it is believed to be a virus that began infecting bats and somehow spread to humans.
The COVID-19 virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person. Typically, the people have to be in close contact, within 6 feet of one another. The virus is spread through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These coughs or sneezes don’t have to directly land on another individual. The droplets can be on an individual’s hand when they shake hands with someone else, or they can be on a surface of an object that is touched by a healthy individual. They also can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby via an uncovered sneeze or cough.
People who are sick are generally thought to be the most contagious. However, scientists now believe that people can spread the virus before they start showing signs or symptoms of the illness. The virus also appears to spread easily and quickly in communities.
If an individual is sick with the coronavirus or has come in contact with someone who has the coronavirus, the treatment at the present time is quarantine and isolation. This will lessen the risk that the infected individual will pass on the virus to others.
The flu and COVID-19 have very similar symptoms. These include fever, coughing, fatigue, body aches and vomiting. Both the flu and COVID-19 can be mild or severe.
Initial research seems to demonstrate that 80 percent of COVID-19 cases are mild and can be treated with over-the-counter medication.
However, if someone is sick and experiencing trouble breathing or a fever that will not break, call a doctor.
Finally, the question arises of when COVID-19 will start to dissipate. Unfortunately, researches don’t know whether warmer weather and temperatures will work to contain the virus. Much more information is needed and scientists are currently studying the virus and attempting to develop a vaccination.
Can I get workers’ compensation for getting sick at work?
Now that we have discussed what COVID-19 is, let’s take a look at how compensation works for occupational diseases in Georgia, and whether or not contracting the coronavirus COVID-19 at work would entitle an individual to medical treatment paid for by the insurance company along with indemnity benefits.
Georgia Code section 34-9-280(2) defines an “occupational disease” as:
Diseases which arise out of and in the course of the particular trade, occupation, process, or employment in which the employee is exposed to such disease, provided the employee or the employee’s dependents first prove to the satisfaction of the State Board of Workers’ Compensation all of the following:
(A) A direct causal connection between the conditions under which the work is performed and the disease;
(B) That the disease followed as a natural incident of exposure by reason of the employment;
(C) That the disease is not of a character to which the employee may have had substantial exposure outside of the employment;
(D) That the disease is not an ordinary disease of life to which the general public is exposed;
(E) That the disease must appear to have had its origin in a risk connected with the employment and to have flowed from that source as a natural consequence.
Based on this definition, contracting COVID-19 at work would not qualify as an occupational disease and would therefore NOT be compensable under Georgia law.
The reason for this is because COVID-19 is a type of disease that an individual would have substantial exposure to outside of their employment. In other words, COVID-19 isn’t unique to any specific type of employment.
Occupational diseases typically involve a disease that is very specific to a certain type of job. An example of this might be lung cancer caused by inhalation of a certain type of smoke due to a closed working environment.
What if my employer won’t let me come to work or is closed?
While the coronavirus may not be a compensable occupational disease in Georgia, it may have other repercussions and ramifications which do relate to workers’ compensation.
For example, if businesses start to close as a result of the virus, companies may not be able to offer previously injured workers employment within their work restrictions. If this happens, the injured worker would be eligible to receive temporary total disability benefits.