A former employee of the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) recently said that she contracted COVID-19 from her workplace, but her former employer is refusing to allow her to collect compensation from her illness.
This all happened in December 2020, during New Mexico’s big COVID-19 surge. During the surge, employees were working from home, but they were asked into the office building to move their office furniture. Through the process of moving their office furniture, the former employee and 6 of her co-workers were in close quarters for over 5 hours. What’s more, the employer wasn’t enforcing the use of face masks.
While the infected employee herself was wearing a mask, others weren’t and she believes she contracted COVID-19 in the office. She also transmitted the virus to her husband, who spent 5 days in the hospital.
The woman feels that she only contracted COVID-19 because she was required to come into the office. And 7 months after being diagnosed, she still had lingering symptoms (including difficulty breathing), so she filed for workers’ compensation to ensure she can pay her medical bills.
However, she has been denied these benefits repeatedly.
What’s more, the woman feels that it was because she filed for workers’ compensation that she is no longer employed by CYFD.
So, what now?
The case has yet to be resolved. It will now head to the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration for resolution. Although specific cases cannot be commented on, in workers’ compensation cases the burden of proof falls on the employee to prove that they were injured or sickened in such a way that aligns with the course and scope of their job.
Arizona workers’ compensation laws
While this ongoing case is playing out in neighboring New Mexico—and more than likely, in many other states by now—it’s fair to question whether the same could happen here in Arizona.
According to the Industrial Commission of Arizona, those who file workers’ compensation claims for contracting COVID-19 at work may not be automatically denied. Rather, all denials must have valid justification like any other workers’ comp claim.
Furthermore, just like any other compensation claim, anyone filing for workers’ compensation on the basis of a work-related COVID-19 infection will go through a stringent review and investigation to determine whether the infection was contracted on the job.
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Doug Ducey expanded workers’ access to medical resources (such as telemedicine resources), as well as benefits for those who get sick on the job.
The biggest challenge facing workers is that since COVID-19 is a virus, anyone filing for workers’ compensation would likely have their claim classified as an occupational disease or occupational illness. This makes things more difficult because occupational diseases typically come from exposure to workplace hazards over a period of time rather than a one-time exposure.
COVID-19 is highly contagious, and its variants are now proving to be even more contagious—which means that it can be hard to prove exactly where the virus was contracted. This makes it often nearly impossible to prove that an employee contracted the virus at work rather than at the grocery store or elsewhere in their personal life.
While the pandemic situation has evolved from where we were this time last year, in many ways it seems like we’re cycling back to the same place. We’re still living in uncertain times—particularly when it comes to workers’ compensation benefits for a COVID-19 illness.