Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been plenty of debates about how employers should approach the safety of their workers. Many people may not realize that one of the biggest debates in Congress has been about whether or not employers should be granted liability from employee-generated COVID-19 lawsuits. Ultimately, Congress has not passed a liability shield of this sort. This is an incredibly challenging area of workers’ compensation law, and the pandemic has stressed the norms of the workers’ comp system.
There have been lawsuits related to COVID-19 employee illness cases
Throughout the United States, there have been numerous lawsuits centered around employees contracting COVID-19. However, most experts agree that employees who become ill due to COVID-19 will face an uphill battle when working to sue their employer directly. That is because COVID-19 is so widespread that it can be very difficult to pinpoint exactly where an employee contracted the virus from. The difficulty in establishing when and where an employee contracts COVID-19 will likely make many of these lawsuits untenable.
However, there are some circumstances in which these lawsuits may be maintained. For example, if there is a large outbreak of COVID-19 at a specific store or factory in a community where there are few or no other instances of the infection spreading, an infected employee may be able to establish (only with a preponderance of evidence) that they contracted the disease on the job. Additionally, if an employee who contracts COVID-19 is able to establish that they only ever left their house to go to work, they may be able to persuade a jury they more than likely contracted the virus in the workplace.
Employer steps to stop the virus from spreading
OSHA’s “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19” is the first place that an employer should look to figure out how to reduce their employees’ exposure to COVID-19. While every workplace will require different measures, reasonable precautions can include:
- Identifying where exposures are most likely to occur, including building entryways, parking garages, elevators and stairs, shared office spaces, etc., and taking steps to mitigate the risk in these areas.
- Identifying non-work risk factors in the community and in homes, including using public transportation, to understand how the disease spreads around the employment site.
- Altering the occupancy of buildings or using alternate work shifts to reduce the total number of employees working at a time.
- Implementing CDC-recommended guidelines for infection control, including hand sanitizers, requiring regular hand washing, maintaining social distancing, ensuring employees have proper personal protective equipment, ensuring that employees wear masks at all times, and allowing employees to work from home if they can do so.
Do you need an attorney?
If you or a loved one have contracted COVID-19 and you think the workplace is where you got the virus, your first priority is to ensure that you receive the medical care you need. You could speak to a workers’ compensation attorney about holding your employer liable, but please understand that this is still an evolving area of law. An attorney will be able to provide you with the most up-to-date information about whether or not employers can and have been held liable for their workers contracting COVID-19.