Ensuring that PA’s Workers’ Compensation System Outlasts the Pandemic
Pennsylvanians who contract COVID-19 and need assistance should be protected by a public safety net. While efforts are ongoing, lawmakers at the federal and state level have worked to establish and sustain these protections, including through workplace protections, enhanced unemployment compensation benefits and eligibility, and paid leave.
Unfortunately, trial lawyer advocates are aggressively pushing an alternative approach: legislation providing that patients are presumed to have contracted the virus at work and therefore eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. The PA Chamber has led efforts to oppose this approach, which seems intended to simply direct a portion of financial support away from patients and into plaintiffs’ attorneys’ pockets.
Current Pennsylvania workers’ compensation law generally covers occupational disease claims if the patient was exposed at work and the incidence of the disease is disproportionately higher for those in the occupation compared to the general public. These parameters ensure that benefits are awarded under appropriate circumstances without expanding workers’ compensation to cover illnesses like the flu.
In most cases, COVID-19 is unlikely to be covered under these parameters since a pandemic, by definition, is everywhere. This is why plaintiffs’ attorneys are pushing for workers’ compensation “presumption” legislation and why the stakes are so high. This would be the wrong move for multiple reasons:
- Plaintiffs’ lawyers will no doubt exploit the fact that it may be impossible to definitively prove that contraction of the virus did not occur at the workplace, despite an employer complying with public health guidelines.
- These proposals would retroactively expand eligibility under existing insurance policies which could lead to staggering insurance cost increases on employers.
- This legislation represents a policy statement from the state legislature that the workplace is uniquely risky, despite all the evidence to the contrary and the tremendous investment made by employers in workplace safety. This standard could be used by the public in general to file frivolous lawsuits against employers.
Lawmakers should focus on policies and programs that drive support to COVID-19 patients who need it without further burdening employers…even if trial lawyers are not able to get a cut.
The PA Chamber will continue leading efforts to oppose workers’ compensation presumption legislation.