Are you an “essential worker?” Am I? Does the contribution you make to the economy and society in general through the course of your work make any difference? Are we essential, or not? Doesn't every position hold some value to the greater good?
In the era of COVID-19, there has been a great deal of discussion about “essential” workers. What has remained undiscussed is specifically what it is that makes them essential. And can they work from home and still be essential, or must they remain on the front lines, exposed to the hazards of public interaction? Certainly, first responders are essential employees. So are grocery store employees, as are the truckers who bring their store's supplies. What about sanitation workers? Without them there will be no one to haul away the trash left over by all the unessential workers who bought stuff with the help of the essential ones.
Confused yet? We haven't even discussed the fact that even non-essential workers are essential to someone. Families and loved ones depend on them for sustenance and safety. Does not the facilitation of family security rise to the ranks of essentiality? And is essentiality even a word?
If it seems like we are rambling, it is because, as with many things in the world of COVID, new standards, processes and definitions are being enacted with little thought of long-term impact or outcome. Take the state of Illinois for example.
Illinois House Bill 2455, which is described as a compromise bill between business and labor, passed the Illinois House on Friday with broad bipartisan support and is headed to the governor's desk. It deals with, among other things, COVID-19 and workers' compensation.
The legislation creates the seemingly ubiquitous "rebuttable presumption" for first-responders and “essential workers” who contract COVID-19 in the course of their employment. Employers, however, will have the ability to rebut the worker's claim.
That would be the rebuttable part of an automatic presumption.
The standards for rebutting the claim “include demonstrating their workplace was following up-to-date public health guidelines for two weeks prior to the employee's contraction, or that the employee was working from home for a period of at least 14 days prior to the injury claim. They also have the opportunity to prove the employee was exposed to the virus by an alternative source outside the workplace.”
Up until this point, home based workers have not been generally included in discussions about essential workers. The fact that automatic, if not rebuttable presumptions will now be extended to people who haven't even been in the workplace really muddies the waters for benefits. Sure, the employer can offer evidence that they have been home based and not exposed in the workplace, but why even have to do that? Shouldn't that be a fairly automatic out?
And does the non-essential worker who is based at home not get the same presumption?
Now we're back to defining the essential worker. My head hurts.
And while we are wandering off this barely defined topic, proving that any employee was exposed to a virus by an alternative source outside the workplace is no small task. Proving the negative can be virtually impossible, unless the employee has been under constant surveillance in their off hours.
One of the sponsors of the bill, State Senator Linda Holmes explained that “workers' compensation does not normally cover illness, but the COVID-19 pandemic is not ‘normal times.'" That would be an understatement. An incorrect understatement, but an understatement, nonetheless. Workers' comp has paid for illnesses for many years. The difference is they have been illnesses that were occupationally based, or in other words, actually had something to do with the job.
COVID represents the forefront of a new frontier for workers' comp, where we now may become the responsible paying entity for generally communicable viruses. How the industry assesses that risk and accounts for it in the actuarial process remains to be seen; especially when the responsibility is thrust upon the industry after the fact. No one is sure how that is going to be done.
Heck, we can't even define what an essential worker is. The trend in presumptions would indicate that it is anybody who has a job.
Which may be the greater point to begin with.
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Robert Wilson is President & CEO of WorkersCompensation.com, and "From Bob's Cluttered Desk" comes his (often incoherent) thoughts, ramblings, observations and rants - often on workers' comp or employment issues, but occasionally not.
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