Catching COVID-19 in a New Jersey Workplace
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New Jersey COVID-19 Workers’ Compensation Attorney
The COVID-19 pandemic took the country by storm, rapidly spreading across the country, infecting millions of people. While Governor Murphy ordered a state-wide temporary shut-down of schools, government offices and most businesses, these restrictions have since been lifted for the most part. As New Jersey opened back up, the number of COVID-19 cases across the state began to climb. As of November 2020, more than 336,000 people have contracted COVID-19 across the state. And tragically, more than 17,000 people have died. Many of those who tested positive for COVID-19 were exposed at work. This raises the question of whether anyone who contracted COVID-19 at work can obtain workers’ compensation benefits.
At the Todd J. Leonard Law Firm, we are here to help New Jersey workers understand their rights when it comes to their workers’ comp benefits. The COVID-19 pandemic raises a host of novel legal issues that courts are still wrestling with. We have extensive experience handling New Jersey workers’ compensation claims, and can help you qualify for benefits. If your application has already been denied, we can also help you appeal the decision.
The New Jersey Workers’ Compensation System
The New Jersey workers’ compensation system is designed to provide injured employees with a quick way to get the money they need to help them get back on their feet after a workplace injury. The workers’ comp system also covers “occupational illnesses.” Ideally, injured workers will qualify for benefits relatively quickly, get the medical attention they need, and then return to work. However, workers’ compensation benefits are available on a longer-term basis for those who suffer serious injuries or permanent disability.
Workers’ compensation is a no-fault insurance program. This means that an injured worker does need to prove that their employer was at fault for causing their illness and/or injuries. However, when it comes to occupational illnesses, obtaining benefits can be a bit more complicated. The primary difficulty workers face is proving that their occupational illness was related to their work.
In September 2020, Governor Murphy took a major step to make obtaining workers’ compensation benefits much easier for many New Jersey workers by signing Senate Bill 2380 into law. Under the new law, there is a rebuttable presumption that any “essential employee” who tested positive for COVID-19 was exposed at work, provided they were working outside their home.
The new law provides a broad definition of “essential employee,” which, in theory, should allow tens of thousands of COVID-19-positive employees to qualify for New Jersey workers’ comp benefits. For example, the law explains that an essential employee is a public or private sector employee who, during a state-declared emergency, does any of the following:
• Public safety worker or emergency responder (including police and firefighters);
• Provide healthcare services, emergency transport services, or social services;
• Performs functions which involve physical proximity to members of the public and are essential to the public’s health, safety and welfare, including transportation services, hotel employees, financial services and those who work in the manufacture, delivery or sale of essential services such as food, beverages, fuel and medical equipment.
The law also clarifies that anyone else who is later labeled as an “essential worker” by the state is also entitled to the presumption. The complete text of the law can be read here: S2380 (state.nj.us).
What Does SB 2380 Mean for New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Claims?
Senate Bill 2380 creates a rebuttable presumption that all “essential workers” diagnosed with COVID-19 were exposed at work. This makes it much easier for workers to obtain workers’ compensation benefits; however, is it not a guarantee. Employers and their workers’ comp insurance carrier can still contest a worker’s application. Specifically, SB 2380 provides that the presumption “may be rebutted by a preponderance of the evidence showing that the worker was not exposed to the disease while working in a place of employment other than the individual’s own residence.”
It remains to be seen how employers and their insurers will go about trying to prove that a worker was exposed to COVID-19 other than at work. However, in theory, an employer could point to a worker’s social media posts or other publicly available comments.
Importantly, SB 2380 went into effect on September 14, 2020. However, under the terms of the new law, it is retroactive, meaning that it applies to any New Jersey workers diagnosed with COVID from March 9, 2020 onward. The complete text of the law can be read here: S2380 (state.nj.us).
What Benefits Does the New Jersey Workers’ Comp System Provide to COVID-19-Positive Workers?
The New Jersey workers’ compensation system provides benefits to those employees who contracted COVID-19 through their work. The availability of benefits will depend on the extent of a worker’s illness, and its effect on their ability to return to work and do their job. Below are the types of workers’ comp benefits available in New Jersey:
• Medical benefits – Medical benefits include “necessary and reasonable medical treatment, prescriptions and hospitalization services related to the work injury.” Generally, an employer has the right to specify where an injured worker obtains medical care absent emergency treatment.
• Temporary Total Disability benefits – Temporary Total Disability (TTD) benefits are available to workers who missed more than seven days of work due to their illness or injury. TTD benefits are calculated by taking 70 percent of the worker’s average weekly wage, subject to a maximum of 75 percent of the Statewide Average Weekly Wage (which is $1,291,42 in 2019). TTD benefits typically end once the worker goes back to work or reaches their Maximum Medical Improvement (MMI).
• Permanent Partial Disability benefits – Workers who suffer an injury that affects only a certain part of their body, or a certain bodily function, can obtain Permanent Partial Disability (PPD) benefits. The amount of PPD benefits depends on the part of the body affected and the extent of the disability. PPD benefits kick in after temporary disability ends.
• Permanent Total Disability benefits – If a worker cannot return to work due to their injuries or disability, they can obtain Permanent Total Disability (PTD) benefits. PTD benefits are typically paid at the same rate as TTD benefits; however, PTD benefits are initially approved for 450 weeks. Continued receipt of benefits is available if the worker can show they are still unable to work at the end of that period.
• Death benefits – Family members who are dependent on a worker who dies as the result of a workplace injury can obtain death benefits. Death benefits are paid at a rate of 70 percent of the deceased worker’s weekly wages, subject to a maximum. Families can also obtain up to $3,500 in funeral expenses.
What Are Common Symptoms of COVID “Long-Haulers”?
COVID-19 is deadly, and medical experts are still trying to understand the long-term impact that the virus takes on those who contract it as many people have become COVID-19 “long-haulers” as symptoms linger months after exposure to the virus. Under the new law, essential workers in New Jersey can more easily qualify for these important benefits, allowing them to obtain the medical treatment they need at no cost to them. However, employees diagnosed with COVID-19 should consider working with an experienced New Jersey workers’ compensation attorney to ensure that they receive benefits in a timely manner.
Common Symptoms of Covid-19
• Limited pulmonary function; e.g., Shortness of breath
• Joint pain and body aches
• Loss of appetite
• Loss of taste
• Loss of smell
• Problems sleeping
• Gastrointestinal issues
• “Brain fog” – having episodes of being forgetful, confused, unable to focus or concentrate
What Occupations Are at High Risk to Exposure to Covid-19?
• Healthcare workers, including nurses, doctors, orderlies, hospital staff, Emergency Room personnel, etc.
• First responders, including police, firefighters, EMT and paramedic personnel
• Teachers and teacher aides, school staff, school bus drivers
• Security guards
• Nursing home/long-term care workers
• Physical Therapists
• Pharmacists and their staff
• Childcare workers
• Elderly care/home health aide workers
• Social workers
• Pulmonologists/Respiratory doctors
• Dentists and dental hygienists
• Corrections Officers
• Supermarket employees
• Airline workers, including flight attendants, pilots, baggage handlers, etc.
• Gas station workers
• Customer-facing employees
• Other Essential Workers
Reach Out to a Dedicated New Jersey Workers’ Comp Lawyer Today
If you have contracted COVID-19, you may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. While the new law makes it easier for essential workers to obtain benefits, even non-essential workers may qualify for benefits under certain circumstances. However, non-essential workers have to establish that they contracted COVID-19 while at work which can prove difficult.
At the Todd J. Leonard Law Firm, our New Jersey workers’ comp attorneys have over 30 years of experience aggressively representing employees and their families, helping them obtain the benefits they need and to which they are entitled. To learn more about how we can help you pursue your claim, give us a call today at (973) 920-7900 to request a free and confidential consultation. There is no risk in calling, because we never charge a fee unless we can help you obtain the benefits you seek. We have offices conveniently located in Denville and Morristown.
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Being injured or having a family member injured can have serious and lifelong consequences. We can try to ease the burden. Contact us today to learn more about how our team of experienced New Jersey accident attorneys can support you through these challenging times.