Partitions: COVID-19 Is NOT an Occupational Illness| Employees Compensation Information

By Mark Walls

Thursday, March 25, 2021 | 365 | 0 | min read

When employee compensation was conceived over 100 years ago, it was intended to cover traumatic injuries in an industrial setting.

Mark Walls

With the development of employee compensation, this coverage has expanded in many ways. It was recognized that there were certain diseases or conditions, such as asbestosis and black lung disease, to which workers in certain occupations were exposed that the general public was not similarly exposed.

These occupational diseases were not caused by sudden traumatic exposure, but rather resulted from exposure over time and often took several years for the disease to manifest. The traditional system of workers ‘compensation was not established for such conditions, so most states eventually passed the Occupational Disease Act under workers’ compensation laws.

Infectious diseases were never considered to be occupational diseases. However, most states will cover infectious diseases under employee compensation if the employee can demonstrate:

  • He got sick with the disease.
  • He was exposed to the disease in the workplace.
  • His risk of contracting the disease at work is greater than in public.

All of this brings us to the events of last year with the COVID-19 pandemic. Although thousands of employee compensation claims have been paid under the existing standard, several states passed presumption laws assuming that workers in certain occupations in the workplace had completed COVID-19. These assumptions changed the burden of proof on insured workers so that workers no longer had to prove that they were at a higher risk of developing the disease than the general public.

A worrying legislative trend is emerging in 2021 and it goes one step further. Several states are considering laws or regulatory measures to classify COVID-19 as an occupational disease under their statutes. This consideration is alarming for many reasons.

First and foremost, COVID-19 is NOT an occupational disease. Millions of people around the world developed the disease, most of whom did not have it at work. An occupational disease is by definition specific to the risks involved in the occupation. This is not the case with COVID-19.

Will this open the door to future infectious diseases that are covered by workers’ compensation? The 1918 flu never went away; it lives on in mutated form and requires annual vaccinations. The COVID-19 virus is likely to experience similar mutations that could also require annual vaccinations. Will all respiratory viruses be considered an occupational disease in the future?

If politics makes COVID-19 a named occupational disease, aren’t policymakers de facto making the assumption that everything COVID-19 is work-related? Policy makers appear to be using workers ‘compensation to cover part of the pandemic costs, but workers’ compensation is not health insurance. There is no way for employers to conduct loss control against a global pandemic. There is no way for underwriters to accurately assess the risks of a global pandemic.

If we continue to blur the lines between employee compensation and group health, where is this going? Cancer and heart disease are already considered occupational diseases for certain professions in certain states, as are hernias and blood-borne diseases. When workers’ compensation becomes responsible for general conditions that affect millions of people each year, it no longer serves its intended purpose. It is no longer a bargain for employers to be forced to pay employee compensation claims that the health system should be responsible for.

Mark Walls is vice president of communications and strategic analysis for Safety National. This blog post was reprinted with permission from

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