How will North Carolina’s workers’ compensation system deal with the anticipated claims arising from workers who contract and even die from COVID-19? That’s the question North Carolina lawmakers are addressing as they debate new proposed legislation designed to handle the issue proactively.
What is the law all about?
House Bill 1057, sponsored by House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, is being pitched as a balanced measure to help both employees and employers through the crisis. In short, it would pave the way for employees diagnosed with COVID-19 to enjoy a presumption that they contracted the disease at work. Much like the Parsons presumption, the presumption would be rebuttable, meaning the employer and insurer could offer evidence of exposure in the home or elsewhere. However, with a disease as widespread as COVID-19, defense-side experts express concern that the presumption will be nearly impossible to rebut. Business groups actively lobbied against the bill and claim that it would threaten the integrity of the entire workers’ compensation system.
What is the upside for employers?
Sponsors claim that, unlike traditional workers’ compensation claims, the money set aside to pay the COVID-19 claim benefits would not come from workers’ compensation insurance, but instead from $75 million of specially allocated federal COVID relief funds, pulled from the total funds of $1.9 billion provided to North Carolina. Lawmakers championing the bill liken this system to the eugenics litigation system and the 911 fund New York established to pay firefighter claims arising from the terrorist attack. Opposition groups, though, are concerned that the special funds are insufficient and that employers and carriers will be left to hold the bag.
Another employer benefit is that the bill includes an exclusive remedy provision. As with normal workers’ compensation claims, infected employees seeking compensation would be limited to the medical and disability benefits under workers’ compensation and barred from recovering higher damages, including pain and suffering, otherwise available under traditional negligence claims.
What is the status?
On June 22, 2020, House committee members discussed both drafts under consideration – House Bill 1057, applying to first responders and health care workers, and House Bill 1056, applying to all “essential” workers – a broad category including grocery store and retail workers. As one committee member pointed out during the June 22 discussion, the HB 1057 presumption as written would apply not just to physically-present essential workers, but also to workers like school teachers who have largely worked remotely during the pandemic. As lawmakers continue to debate, the attorneys at Anders Newton will monitor the progress of the proposed legislation and will update you of any developments. Contact us with any questions regarding workers’ compensation claims alleging COVID-19 exposure.