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'It levels the playing field': NC bill would update workers' compensation laws in the era of COVID-19

The bill sparked strong backlash from more than 20 business associations, who joined a letter to lawmakers warning of dire financial consequences

A new bill would change NC workers' compensation law to assume that frontline workers who become sick with coronavirus caught the contagion while at work, allowing millions of people to more easily obtain financial benefits from their employer.

The bill generated strong pushback from more than 20 business associations, who signed onto a letter to lawmakers warning that placing the burden of proof on the employers would spell financial disaster for businesses already struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic.

House Bill 1057, filed May 1, has more than 100 lawmakers listed as sponsors.

“From my perspective, I feel that it levels the playing field a bit for employees who are really getting called to serve all of us,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison a House Democrat from Guilford County who sponsored the bill.

Current North Carolina workers' compensation laws require that an injured employee applying for benefits prove that their injury, from asbestos exposure to broken bones, specifically resulted from an incident on the job. 

HB 1057 would flip the script — creating a “rebuttable presumption” that certain frontline workers who contract COVID-19 specifically got the infection while on the job, and employers would have to prove that they did not. This would allow these workers to more easily obtain wage replacement and medical benefits as part of workers' compensation.

“A worker who gets exposed to the coronavirus, and they think they got exposed at work, they can file a workers' compensation claim which would allow for coverage for medical expenses and for 2/3 of their pay,” said Harrison.

Workers covered in the bill include law enforcement officers, jailers, prison guards, and firefighters. It also includes government-employed EMTs and paramedics. The bill further includes health care workers, and any employee required to work during the pandemic for a business deemed “essential” by executive order, including food service and retail. 

“Besides healthcare workers, a grocery store clerk or meat processing employee, those folks are in the line of fire every day,” said Harrison.

The bill also appropriates $5 million to help pay for claims filed by government employees.

Certain government employees would also be guaranteed sick and vacation days credited back for any time spent in quarantine for suspected coronavirus exposure.

Rep. Jon Hardister, a House Republican from Guilford County, cautioned that the bill is still in its early stages and could face changes.

“I think the bill will change, this is a work in progress,” Hardister told WFMY News 2. “We are working with the chamber of commerce, the business community, to try and get that one right.”

Business backlash

The bill sparked sharp condemnation in the form of a letter emailed to lawmakers by the NC Retail Merchants Association. More than 20 business associations — including pork, trucking, healthcare, and forestry associations — joined the letter to lawmakers, provided to WFMY News 2 by lawmakers.

Primarily, the business associations are concerned that employers would face immense financial burdens, even with workers' compensation insurance, according to the letter. 

They are also concerned that it would be impossible to prove that an employee did not contract coronavirus while at work, essential guaranteeing that every employee who catches COVID-19 will be eligible for workers' compensation benefits from employers.

“A person with COVID-19 could have easily been exposed to that highly contagious disease at the Post Office, while bumping into someone who is asymptomatic on the greenway, or while touching a park bench,” the letter states. “The documented community spread of COVID-19 can be caused by exposure to anyone, anywhere without the person even knowing where or when they were exposed.”

If it were to become law, the employee compensation claims “will cause additional and substantial economic damage to an already struggling employer base.”

The letter argues that insurance companies might not be bound contractually to pay for claims under the new North Carolina law, placing a heavy financial burden on employers to make up the cost.

The business communities in the letter write that the current law already provides a fair opportunity for a worker diagnosed with COVID-19 to make a claim and prove they likely contracted the virus at work.

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