Bill would authorize workers’ compensation for COVID

Essential workers exposed to COVID-19 on the job could receive compensation under a bill heard March 1 by the Business and Labor Committee.

<a href='http://news.legislature.ne.gov/dist26' target='_blank' title='Link to the website of Sen. Matt Hansen'>Sen. Matt Hansen</a>
Sen. Matt Hansen

Under LB441, sponsored by Lincoln Sen. Matt Hansen, cases identified after March 13, 2020, in which an essential worker tested positive for COVID-19, was directed by their employer to quarantine due to a possible exposure or whose death certificate listed COVID-19 as the cause of death would be considered a work-related accident and be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits.

An employer could rebut such a claim if it could prove that the exposure happened outside of the workplace.

Some employees already have been approved for workers’ compensation benefits for injuries related to COVID-19, Hansen said, but the state must make sure all essential workers can access the same relief.

“We’ve all praised essential workers for close to a year now for protecting the community through a pandemic,” he said. “The thought of them not being covered under workers’ compensation and leaving families to shoulder the burden themselves is unacceptable.”

The bill defines essential workers as, among other occupations, peace officers, firefighters, hospital employees, EMTs, child care providers and school and grocery store employees.

Cases filed under the bill’s provisions would not be subject to the typical seven-day waiting period before payment of temporary total disability benefits. Compensation would begin from the first date of quarantine, receipt of a positive test or confirmed diagnosis — whichever is earliest — and would continue for the duration of the self-quarantine period.

An employer’s workers’ compensation insurance premium, experience rating or modification would not be impacted by positive COVID-19 cases.

Finally, the state Department of Insurance would process claims and pay compensation benefits retroactively for cases occurring after March 13, 2020, and before the operative date of the bill. A fund dedicated to paying retroactive claims would be created and could be funded by federal COVID relief dollars.

Robbie McEwen, representing Nebraska Appleseed, spoke in support of LB441. He said it is difficult under the current system for essential workers to prove their claim and receive compensation.

“We need to ensure Nebraskans performing this essential work have access to basic coverage and protection,” McEwen said.

Also supporting the bill was Rhonda Meyer, speaking on behalf of the Nebraska State Volunteer Firefighters Association. Volunteers are afraid of exposure, she said, because it could lead to lost work and wages due to illness.

Having workers’ compensation protections in place could help alleviate that fear and ensure that assistance calls are answered, she said.

“They hear that it’s a difficulty breathing call or it’s in a ‘hot spot’ area … all of a sudden, they don’t respond, which impacts the support to our communities,” Meyer said.

Opposing the measure was state DOI director Bruce Ramge. He said the department is not equipped to process retroactive claims as proposed in LB441, which could lead to a significant delay in distributing compensation.

“The [DOI] would have to hire several new staffers to handle the workload and provide them with the necessary training, equipment and supplies to complete the task,” Ramge said. “Further, because the [DOI] does not presently perform any sort of claims administration, it will require claims management software and corresponding employee training to use that system.”

Korby Gilbertson, speaking on behalf of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, also opposed the bill. Workers’ compensation law already is construed liberally in favor of the employee, she said, and it would be very difficult for employers to prove that a worker contracted COVID-19 outside of the workplace.

The committee took no immediate action on LB441.

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