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Geaney: Essential Workers Legislation: What It Means and What It Does Not Mean

  • State: New Jersey
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On Sept. 14, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed S2380 dealing with COVID-19 and essential workers in respect to workers’ compensation benefits. The bill was signed on the very last day before the bill would have automatically become law. 

John H. Geaney

John H. Geaney

It is important to consider what this bill does and what it does not do. The essence of the bill is that it creates a rebuttable presumption for essential employees that their contraction of the coronavirus is employment-related for workers’ compensation purposes.

The employer can rebut the presumption by a preponderance of the evidence (more than 50%) by showing that the worker was not exposed to the disease while working in the place of employment. 

Essential workers are defined as:

  • Public safety workers or first responders.
  • Those involved in providing medical and other health care services, emergency transportation, social services and other care services, including services provided in health care facilities, residential facilities or homes.
  • Those who perform functions that involve physical proximity to members of the public and are essential to the public’s health, safety and welfare, including transportation services, hotel and other residential services, financial services, and the production, preparation, storage, sale and distribution of essential goods such as food, beverages, medicine, fuel, and supplies for conducting essential business and work at home.
  • Anyone deemed an essential employee by the public authority declaring the state of emergency.

The effect of a legal presumption is to shift the burden of proof to the employer to disprove the case. Normally the injured worker has the burden of proving his or her case by a preponderance of the evidence.

If a worker contracts COVID-19 and meets one of the categories above, then the workers’ compensation claim will be found to have arisen from work, unless the employer can rebut the claim by showing the worker contracted the disease in a non-work scenario. Disproving the case may involve proof that the worker more likely contracted the disease from a family member, from an outside gathering, from travel out of state or perhaps proof that there was no exposure to the coronavirus at work.

Readers need to reflect on what the bill does not do. A presumption of compensability is not a presumption of impairment. There is no presumption of impairment under the law.  To receive an award of permanent partial disability in New Jersey, one must prove a work-related impairment that restricts the function of the body and causes either a lessening to a material degree of working ability or a substantial impairment of nonwork functions.

If one has fully recovered from the illness, proof of impairment will often be very difficult.  Many of the claim petitions that have been filed in New Jersey do not indicate any particular impairment at all, just referring to “residuals of COVID-19.” Some claim petitions refer to “respiratory illness” without any treatment having occurred by a pulmonologist.

The first issue is, therefore, whether the illness arose from work. The presumption helps the injured worker in close cases on the issue of connection to work. However, the second proof issue will be difficult for many of those who have recovered from the coronavirus, namely proof by objective evidence that the illness has caused a permanent partial or total impairment. That will require good science and good medicine.

The impairment must be present, not merely a potential for injury in the future. 

The effective date of the bill is March 9, 2020. Clients have inquired whether this means that they should re-evaluate all the COVID-19 cases they made decisions on during the past six months. The bill does not require this, and there is really little to be gained by it.

If there is a dispute over workers’ compensation benefits, the injured worker will likely address the issue with the employer or file a claim petition to obtain medical, temporary or permanent partial disability benefits. Many recovered COVID-19 cases simply do not involve a dispute over workers’ compensation benefits.

Notably, numerous dependency claims have already been filed long before the passage of S2380. Employers can expect the filing of more COVID-19 cases as a result of the passage of S2380, but the bill does not make it any easier for claimants to prove objective evidence of an impairment that meets the Supreme Court standard set forth in Perez v. Pantasote.

John H. Geaney is an attorney, executive committee member and shareholder with Capehart Scatchard, a defense law firm in New Jersey. This post appears with permission from Geaney's New Jersey Workers' Comp Blog.

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