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Is COVID-19 a Compensable Workers’ Compensation Claim?

Short Answer: It is now.

In April, Governor Pritzker took the emergency step of guaranteeing essential employees who contracted COVID-19 workers’ compensation benefits. Prior to the pandemic, an employee must prove their injury was directly caused by their job or duties.  The emergency order was put in place for at least 150 days, bringing great relief to essential and frontline workers who have been at great risk of contracting the disease. The order applied to such workers as: firefighters, EMTs, nurses, healthcare workers, transportation workers, and other essential employees as designated in the Governor’s stay at home orders.

A few weeks following Pritzker’s order, several influential groups – such as the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association and the Illinois Retail Merchants Association – filed a lawsuit challenging the order. A Judge in downstate Illinois granted a temporary restraining order to stop the enforcement of the emergency order.  The business groups successfully argued that the order forced employers to take on additional medical expenses without proof the virus had been contracted as a result of the employee’s job. Soon thereafter, the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission repealed the provision in Pritzker’s emergency order that presuming that front-line workers become infected with COVID-19, it was  a result of their work duties, requiring front-line workers to prove that they did in fact contract COVID-19 in the workplace to their employers in order to receive workers compensation benefits.

At end of May, the Illinois legislature overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill that provides COVID-19 workers’ compensation protection for essential workers as defined under the Governor’s stay-at-home order. The bill provides a presumption that first responders and front-line workers infected with the coronavirus were exposed at work. It is up to the employer to then prove that it was not contracted at work in order to avoid workers compensation coverage to front line employees.

So, based on what has transpired over the last few months with respect to workers compensation coverage and the burden of proof, essential workers now have access to workers compensation benefits should they get COVID-19, as well as a presumption that the worker contracted the virus through their employment. An alternative, but also equally challenging avenue for recovery for an employee who gets sick after contracting COVID-19, is a lawsuit or claim outside of workers compensation.  For that claim to succeed, an employee would need to show that the employer placed the employee in a dangerous work situation or disregarded all workplace safety guidelines. Another way an employer could potentially be liable is if an employee complains of workplace safety concerns to their employer and gets fired for voicing those concerns. There may be a possible cause of action for retaliatory discharge which is in violation of Illinois public policy. Any employee who is concerned due to a work issue or situation should reach out to an experienced employment lawyer.

Authored by Sean McGrath, Esq., Associate Attorney

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