Though we still have much to learn about the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, the general consensus is that symptoms range from mild to severe and can lead to death. In response, lawmakers and industry leaders have been implementing relief for impacted individuals — such as paid leave, additional unemployment benefits, and free COVID-19 testing.

A common question among employees is whether relief extends to workers’ compensation, also known as workers’ comp.

Long story short, if you’re exposed to COVID-19 on the job, you might have a hard time getting workers’ compensation — unless you’re a healthcare provider or first responder.

What exactly is workers’ compensation?

Workers’ comp is a type of insurance — paid by employers — that provides benefits to employees who suffer a work-related injury or illness. Whether your employer must purchase workers’ compensation is up to the state. (In most states, workers’ compensation insurance is mandatory for employers.)

Workers’ compensation helps cover:

  • Missed wages caused by taking time off to recover from the injury or illness
  • Medical costs incurred by the injured or ill employee
  • Vocational rehabilitation so the impaired employee can return to work
  • Death benefits for the family members of an employee who died because of a work-related injury or illness

Eligibility for workers’ compensation greatly depends on whether your injury or illness is work related and covered under the state’s workers’ compensation laws.

What is a work-related injury or illness?

Each state has its own requirements for what constitutes a work-related injury or illness. Per an article published by Nolo, “Usually, if you were doing something for the benefit of your employer, and you were injured or became ill as a result, then your injury or illness is work related and you can receive benefits,” so long as you satisfy other eligibility criteria.

Although workers’ compensation claims often stem from work-related injuries, they can result from an occupational disease, which is typically defined as an illness contracted by an employee due to the nature of their work.

If the illness is classified as an “occupational disease” under state law, then the employee can receive workers’ comp benefits, provided other eligibility requirements are met. The employee must typically be able to prove that the occupational disease is not an “ordinary disease of life” — such as the common cold or flu — which the general public, as well, is exposed to.

Since the occupational disease must be a natural consequence of the employee’s occupation, the employee must be able to connect their illness to the scope of their work. With regards to COVID-19, it is often easier for frontline healthcare workers and first responders to directly link their coronavirus infection to their job.

Are all frontline healthcare workers with COVID-19 eligible for workers’ comp?

A few states, such as Kentucky and Washington, are guaranteeing workers’ compensation benefits for frontline healthcare workers who are quarantined due to contracting COVID-19 while on the job.

In Washington, for example, healthcare workers and first responders who cannot work because they contracted the coronavirus at work will receive workers’ compensation benefits — which cover medical testing, treatment expenses, and indemnity payments.

In states that do not offer coronavirus-specific guarantees, frontline healthcare workers exposed to COVID-19 must be able to successfully demonstrate that the exposure is work related and that their job puts them at a higher risk of contracting the virus than the general public. As mentioned, this isn’t a problem for many frontline healthcare workers.

Does this mean other employees cannot get workers’ comp for COVID-19?

Not necessarily. But according to an article published by SHRM, “Workers who aren't in health care may have a more difficult time claiming workers' compensation.” To qualify, they will need to show that their job places them at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19. Per the SHRM article, employees who caught the virus because they were forced to be around infected coworkers might be able to effectively argue that it was their job that caused their illness.

As for federal employees, the U.S. Department of Labor has made clear that all federal employees who contract the novel coronavirus while carrying out their federal duties are eligible for workers’ compensation under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA).