All employees in New York State who are covered by the workers’ compensation law are entitled to wage replacement and medical care if they are exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace. If that workplace exposure leads to death, those workers’ families are entitled to survivor benefits under the workers’ compensation law.
However, current case law and agency determinations make it very easy for insurance companies to deny valid claims. We are working with the Legislature and executive to prevent those companies from denying claims.
And here’s why.
At this very moment, nurses, doctors, pharmacists, firefighters, police officers, grocery store clerks, delivery people, transportation workers and so many others are continuing to provide essential services to care for the sick and keep the public fed, safe and healthy while the rest of us are at home.
Which is precisely why this is not the time to operate under the business-as-usual model.
Yet that is exactly what some are pushing, particularly insurance companies and the Business Council. In the middle of an extraordinary crisis of historical proportions, those special interests are more concerned about putting up barriers to needed workers’ compensation than actually ensuring injured workers get the help they need and deserve.
Frontline workers are interacting with the sick, each other and the public at large on a daily basis throughout the pandemic. They are doing so at their own risk, many without essential personal protective equipment to keep them well, much the same way first responders did during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Just as we did in 2001, we again have a moral obligation to ensure that if workers become ill, or worst case, lose their lives as a result of exposure, in this case to the coronavirus, while doing the essential work needed during this pandemic, they absolutely must be covered by workers’ compensation.
Otherwise, who is going to be put in the position of deciding who shouldn’t be covered? Who is going to decide whose life doesn’t matter? Which employees are we now going to tell to stay home because if they die, their family won't be compensated and it's simply not worth the risk?
Are we ready as a society to decide which services the state can afford to lose right now? Will it be nurses, doctors, pharmacists, grocery store workers? Should we tell the firefighters or police officers not to take that risk?
How about the transit worker who helps transport these essential workers, like nurses, to and from the hospital every day? What about the utility worker who contracts the disease while doing the essential work of keeping the power on? Are we ready to spend the next few months in isolation, in our homes, without electricity?
The answer to all these questions is of course, no. All those workers are deemed essential because now more than ever, we need them — which is why as they continue to risk their own lives out there for all of us, we must be there for them.
The very least we can do is prevent insurance companies from fleecing these essential workers and their families should they become ill or die while working for the benefit of us all.
That is why we are advocating for language to be included in the budget that would streamline the process for those who do contract COVID-19 at work and prevent insurance companies from denying valid claims.
If we have learned our lesson from the terrorist attacks of 9/11, we will enact this critical legislation.
Mario Cilento is president of the New York State AFL-CIO, a federation of 3,000 unions. This editorial was written for the NY Daily News.