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Legislative fight coming over virus-related workers compensation claims

Posted May 8, 2020 4:23 p.m. EDT
Updated May 8, 2020 5:20 p.m. EDT

NC Legislative Building

— A fight is brewing over workers compensation rules tied to COVID-19, with business groups that lobby the General Assembly pushing back against changes that would make it easier for employees to win claims.

House Bill 1057 would create a "rebuttable presumption" that first responders, health care workers and other essential workers infected with the coronavirus got it at work, qualifying them for compensation unless the employer could prove otherwise. The bill has nearly 60 sponsors, almost enough to pass the House.

But business groups came out against the measure this week, sending lawmakers a white paper that labeled the proposal "a fundamental threat to the continued viability of the workers compensation system in our state."

Nearly 25 business groups signed on, including lobbying groups for retail merchants, pork producers, trucking companies, manufacturing companies, gas stations, restaurants, hotels and hospitals. The North Carolina Chamber and the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners signed on as well.

Andy Ellen, president and general counsel for the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association, sent the white paper to lawmakers via email

"This is a very important and complicated issue but one that comes with great economic costs if acted on," Ellen said in the email.

Current law puts the burden on employees to prove that their injury came from the course of employment. This bill would essentially flip that for COVID-19 and let employees recover medical costs and two-thirds of lost wages.

House Minority Leader Darren Jackson is sponsoring the bill, but it has bipartisan support, including from Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie, chair of the House Finance Committee.

Jackson, D-Wake, noted Friday that the legislature's first round of COVID-19 bills included liability protections for businesses, limiting lawsuits from people who contract the virus. The final bills also dropped a Senate-proposed increase in weekly unemployment benefits, something the N.C. Chamber opposed.

"Now we need the second round of COVID-19 bills to include protections for workers on the front lines," Jackson said in an email. "Every night, I see commercials talking about and thanking our heroes. It's time to make sure they are protected."

In addition to shifting the burden of proof, the bill would set aside $5 million to pay claims filed by state employees.

The white paper that business groups sent House members said current law "already provides a fair opportunity for an employee diagnosed with COVID-19 to make a claim and an employer to either pay or defend the claim."

It argues that changes would throw the system out of whack, since the premiums that fund workers compensation claims, and the reinsurance contracts that cover losses, were set up months ago, before a pandemic was contemplated.

It will also be impossible to prove employees didn't get the virus at work, the paper argues.

"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," it states.

For now, it's the employees who have to clear this high bar.

"Under current law, essential workers get stuck with all of these costs," Jackson said. "Whatever they cannot afford will fall to taxpayers through social assistance programs."

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