Labor Debates Presumption for Contracting COVID in Workplace

Connecticut Workers’ Compensation Commission Chair Stephen Morelli speaks during a virtual Labor and Public Employees Committee public hearing on March 11. Courtesy CTNewsJunkie.com

There were 1,726 COVID-related workers’ compensation claims filed during the time the state was shut down, and nearly 1,400 have been filed since then.

By Lisa Backus, CTNewsJunkie.com 

More than 3,100 workers’ compensation claims related to employees sick with COVID-19 have been filed since the start of the pandemic a year ago.

But many essential workers who filed claims haven’t received a dime and are still struggling with the health and financial fallout from the disease months later, according to the Connecticut AFL-CIO.

“The only reason they got sick is because they went to work,” said Sal Luciano, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO.

But employers, including state agencies, are stalling or trying to dissuade employees from filing claims, despite clear evidence that essential workers likely contracted the virus on the job, at least four employees who were sickened by the virus said during a press conference staged Thursday morning before a public hearing on the bill.

“It is unfair that they are fighting this and saying I got this from someone else,” said Scott Mesloh, a nurse at Natchaug Hospital who hasn’t been to work since a patient tested positive for COVID-19 nearly a year ago. “Breathing every day is a struggle.”

Mesloh’s statement had to be taped because he still is on oxygen and some days he can’t speak, union officials said. He processed a patient at work who two days later tested positive for COVID-19, he said. Within days, he was admitted to the hospital and later suffered hallucinations as his organs were shutting down while he was battling COVID-19.

A year later, his workers’ compensation claim has yet to be approved, he said.

“I just want to be back to normal,” Mesloh said as he cried. “I don’t expect that to ever happen. I need this workers’ comp, I need to be able to pay my bills.”

Mesloh was one of 1,726 employees who filed for workers’ compensation during the period from March 10, 2020 – when the state shut down due to the pandemic – and May 20, when the state reopened. During that time, essential workers were given a “rebuttable presumption” by Gov. Ned Lamont, meaning that it would be up to the employer to prove that the exposure to COVID-19 didn’t happen at work.

The “rebuttable presumption” was meant to make it easier for frontline workers to receive workers’ compensation benefits related to COVID-19. Since the period ended, there have been an additional 1,397 claims filed, according to Connecticut Workers’ Compensation Commission Chair Stephen Morelli. The commission has also received 18 claims for death benefits related to COVID-19. The death benefit, which is now $4,000, can be used to pay for funerals.

Morelli did not provide information on how many claims had been approved.

The proposed law would reinstate the “rebuttable presumption” retroactively, making it easier for employees to get workers’ compensation for COVID-19-related health issues, increase the death benefit to $20,000, and expand the amount and length of payments.

It would also prohibit employers from dissuading employees from filing workers’ compensation claims and would prohibit employers from firing or disciplining employees who file.

Employees who work from home without any contact with co-workers would be able to file a COVID-19 workers’ compensation claim, under the proposed legislation.

The additional benefits are much needed, said Labor and Public Employee Committee Co-Chair Robyn Porter, D-New Haven. Porter spoke of a constituent who contracted COVID-19 in April and whose husband died from the virus shortly thereafter.

“We’re talking about a year out and she’s still fighting to receive her workers’ compensation and still fighting for her husband’s death benefit,” Porter said.

Gov. Ned Lamont says he doesn’t know if the “rebuttable presumption” should go on forever.

“I’m not sure this should go on forever,” Lamont said. “It would be really expensive for workers’ comp costs.”

Business associations and municipalities said they oppose the bill based on the projected cost.

John Blair, associate counsel for the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, contends that the bill would increase benefits by 400%. “This proposal will result in a direct financial impact on our state’s businesses,” Blair said in his written testimony. “HB 6478 includes a host of new and unnecessary costs that will impact the financial viability of our workers’ compensation program.”

The proposed law would put the onus on the employer to prove that the exposure occurred on the job, said Bethel First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker. “This is too open-ended and could open the door to tremendous costs for taxpayers,” Knickerbocker said.

According to correction officers Sean Howard and Virginia Ligi, there is no question that they contracted COVID-19 in their jobs at Cheshire Correctional Institution run by the state Department of Correction.

“State prisons have been a petri dish for COVID-19,” said Howard who has consistently fought for better COVID-19 protections for DOC employees in his role a the president of AFSCME Local 387.

Howard contracted COVID-19 in July and has since suffered heart damage that he’s been told may be permanent, he said. He gets winded playing with his son and is on seven medications. “Clearly my life will never be the same,” Howard said. “I filed for workers’ compensation, but it hasn’t been processed.”

Ligi has also not received her claim even though she became ill during the “rebuttable presumption” timeframe. “We don’t matter,” she said.

Republished with permission from CTNewsJunkie.com, all rights reserved.

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