covid 19 4969084 640

Wife Can’t Link Husband’s COVID Death to Workplace

16 May, 2023 Chris Parker

covid 19 4969084 640
                               

New York, NY (WorkersCompensation.com) – Many states, including New York, created a specific standard for determining whether an individual infected by COVID-19 can tie that injury to their employment.
As one case shows, it’s not enough for a New York employee, or the employee’s surviving spouse, to allege that the worker was exposed to the disease at work.

In Holder v. Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, 534936 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. App. Div. 04/27/23), the claimant’s husband worked in a group home as a house manager for his employer. His last day of work was March 11, 2020.

Two days later, while on vacation, the house manager noticed he was experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. He checked into a hospital and ultimately, on March 29, passed away. His death certificate left little doubt as to what killed him—the document listed the cause of death as "COVID-19."

The worker’s wife filed a claim for workers' compensation death benefits in July 2020, alleging that decedent's death was the result of his contracting COVID-19 during his employment. A Workers' Compensation Law Judge agreed and awarded the spouse benefits. The Workers' Compensation Board reversed that decision.

Workers' Comp 101: In New York, workers can demonstrate the significantly elevated risk for COVID-19 exposure in their workplace by demonstrating the nature and extent of their work in an environment where exposure to COVID-19 was prevalent.

On appeal, the court first noted that the contraction of COVID-19 in the workplace reasonably qualifies as an unusual hazard, not the natural and unavoidable result of employment and, thus, is compensable under the state’s workers’ compensation laws.

The court added that the claimant had the burden of convincing the court that the injury arose out of and in the course of her husband’s employment. In the case of COVID-19 infection, the court observed that, per state policy guidance:

A claimant may meet his or her burden to show that an injury arose in the course of employment by demonstrating either:

(1) A specific exposure to COVID-19; or
(2) Prevalence of COVID-19 in the work environment so as to present an elevated risk of exposure constituting an extraordinary event.

The court added that the house manager’s wife could establish the injury’s link to her husband’s workplace through the second option by showing, for example:

(1) That her husband’s work involved significant contact with the public in communities with high rates of infection; or
(2) That the workers at her husband’s workplace were experiencing high rates of infection.

In this case, the court found, the spouse offered no evidence or testimony concerning the specifics of her husband’s exposure to the disease. Nor did she present evidence that there were any cases of COVID-19 among the people living or working in the group home that her husband may have had contact with before he developed symptoms.

“In fact, the employer's witness testified that decedent was the first known COVID-19 infection in his workplace,” the court wrote. Although a coworker later contracted COVID-19 and succumbed to the disease, the other worker tested positive two weeks after decedent's positive test.

Finally, the court noted that the spouse failed to shed any light on the extent to which her husband came into close contact with others at the group home.

As a result, the court agreed with the Board that the house manager’s spouse failed to show her husband contracted COVID-19 in the course of his employment. The court affirmed the Board’s decision.


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