Essential workers denied compensation for COVID-19; new bill could change that

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Douglas Long, 61, is still struggling to speak after a month-long stay in the ICU.

In addition to brain and lung damage, Long said he lost 41 pounds throughout his battle with COVID-19. He continues to struggle with depression, anxiety and PTSD triggered by the near-death experience.

“I’m terrified to go anyplace where there are people because I’m so afraid of contracting it a second time,” Long said. “It has totally changed my world and turned everything upside down.”

Long said these conditions have made it impossible for him to return to his old job as a sergeant for the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office, where he was working when he contracted the virus in March.

While he survived the virus, Long fears his family can’t survive the financial fallout from its side effects.

“I’ve been in law enforcement my whole life and at my age, with my conditions, I don’t have any options,” Long said. “I don’t know how I’m going to survive. I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bills.”

Virginia’s Workers Compensation Act gives employees that incur certain injuries on the job the opportunity to have their medical bills, rehabilitation costs and lost wages covered. But currently, lawmakers say essential workers who die or are disabled from COVID-19 can be denied benefits.

Long learned that the hard way when he received a letter from the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission responding to his claim. It informed him that COVID-19 is not defined as an occupational disease, meaning his rights are not protected under the Act.

“I couldn’t believe that they denied my claim because I know I contracted this at work. There was nowhere else I had been,” Long said.

Douglas Long, 61, was denied benefits under the Workers Compensation Act after a month-long battle with COVID-19.

Bills being considered during the special session could help Long and many others win their appeals.

The proposal that passed in the House of Delegates last week would make firefighters, emergency medical services personnel, law enforcement officers, first responders, certain healthcare providers and school board employees eligible for workers compensation. The provisions would apply to claims going back to January 1, 2020.

Del. Jay Jones (D-Norfolk), who introduced the bill, said workers would still have to show that it was more probable than not that they contracted COVID-19 at work.

In a House Labor and Commerce Committee meeting last month, Brent Rawlings with the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association criticized the idea of defining a highly contagious virus with an often uncertain source as an occupational disease.

“By creating a presumption like this, employers are put in the position of having to rule out every possible exposure point in an employees activities in order to overcome that presumption,” Rawlings said. “Just think about how difficult that would be given that this a disease that is shared in the community.”

JT Kessler with the Virginia School Boards Association shared that criticism.

“This bill would put legal and administrative burdens on our school districts that would be just too difficult for us to handle,” Kessler said.

The Senate version of the bill, which has yet to be voted on by the full chamber, doesn’t currently include school board employees under these protections. The House version doesn’t cover correctional officers. Jones said these details can be ironed out later in the legislative process.

Some House Republicans raised concerns about the expense to localities, which would share the cost burden with insurers.

Though the true cost of the change cannot be known at this point, one Southwest Virginia county warned the bill could be ‘catastrophic’ for the budget if there were to be an outbreak situation in schools or among sheriff’s department employees.

“When you talk about cost, I think saving lives and keeping people safe is probably more important,” Del. Jones said in response to the criticism.

The Virginia Municipal League, which represents localities across the commonwealth, is withholding judgement on the bill until the House and Senate decide which public employees will be included.

“The differences between the two bills makes it difficult to meaningfully assess the fiscal impact at this time. As the legislative process moves forward, the fiscal impact may begin to come into focus,” the organization said in a statement.

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