Workers compensation for COVID-19 an uphill battle for Tennessee workers

Food service workers are among the groups who most often have workers' compensation claims denied. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Food service workers are among the groups who most often have workers' compensation claims denied. (Photo: John Partipilo)

More than 40% of initial COVID-19-related workers’ compensations filings in Tennessee have been denied, according to data provided by state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Among workers most likely to get an initial “no” for seeking medical expenses and lost wages as a result of claiming they contracted the disease on the job? Agricultural, food service, manufacturing, transportation and warehouse workers.

Government employees and healthcare workers faced far better odds, with the majority of their claims accepted.

In total, 855 of 2,081 “first reports of injury” related to COVID-19 workplace transmission filed between March 1 and August 16 were denied, according to state data. The reports are a first step in filing a compensation claim.

The data reveals the uphill battle confronting many workers, or their surviving family members, who believe they suffered COVID-19-related lost wages or medical expenses as a result of showing up to work.

“My fear is that we’ve created a maze from which there is no way to exit safely,” said state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville.

“If a worker doesn’t feel safe to go back to work, they can’t receive unemployment. If they go back to work and get sick, they can’t sue. Workers’ compensation is their only remedy. And they can’t even get that.”

Earlier this month, Gov. Bill Lee signed into law sweeping new legal protections for public and private sector employers from lawsuits related to COVID-19 illnesses or deaths.

Yarbro, in the same legislative session that approved those liability protections, introduced a bill that would have given essential workers who contracted COVID-19 in workplaces with documented coronavirus outbreaks the presumption, under workers comp rules, that they contracted the illness as a result of their job. The measure failed.

  If a worker doesn't feel safe to go back to work, they can't receive unemployment. If they go back to work and get sick, they can't sue. Workers' compensation is their only remedy. And they can't even get that.   – Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville

That leaves the burden of proving an illness or death was work-related — and any compensation in lost income, medical or death expenses — up to each individual worker or surviving family member.

Since March, at least 14 other states have enacted policy or law changes to their workers’ compensation programs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, making it easier for certain workers to file claims for COVID-related illnesses.

Like Yarbro’s bill, those states have typically sought to place the burden on employers rather than workers to disprove COVID-19 illnesses were a result of workplace exposures. Illinois extended those protections to all essential workers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Wyoming extended protections to all workers.

Alaska, Minnesota, Utah and Wisconsin limit those protections to first responders and health care workers, according to NCSL.