State News : North Carolina

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North Carolina



Written by: Luke West

As 2020 unfolded and the COVID-19 pandemic set in across the world, it altered our way of life. In addition to closing schools and borders, the U.S. economy essentially shut down. Some businesses and industries were better equipped than others to handle the economic and public health fallout, and directed employees to work from home indefinitely. However, millions of workers, who provide services critical to the functioning of society, did not have the option to work from home.

According to the National Conference of State Legislators, these workers, who have been labeled “frontline” or “essential,” were in industries such as food and agriculture, health care, emergency services, transportation and delivery, energy, water and wastewater management, and critical manufacturing. These workers were, and still are, reporting to work every day.

COVID-19 has proved to be something of a moving target with the lockdown measures, new variants, and impact of vaccinations. The question of whether workers’ compensation covers communicable diseases, such as COVID-19, looms large. For carriers, employers, and workers’ compensation practitioners, the pandemic also begs other questions, such as:Are all communicable diseases the same? What are the critical factors for determining compensability of communicable diseases? Does the designation of an epidemic or pandemic change the way statutes are interpreted? Is there a way to reduce risk from these relatively common yet silent threats?

Are all communicable diseases the same?

Yes and no.

Communicable diseases are also known as infectious or transmissible diseases. The Wisconsin Department of Health reports that communicable diseases result from the infection and growth of pathogenic (disease causing) biologic agents in a human or other animal host. These types of diseases include Hepatitis A, B, and C, HIV, measles, salmonella, and COVID-19. Some communicable diseases have been found to be compensable, such as serum hepatitis in a lab worker.Booker v. Duke.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), communicable diseases are spread through direct contact with a sick person, breathing in airborne viruses and bacteria, contact with blood and bodily fluids, contact with a contaminated surface, or insect or animal bites. All communicable diseases are not the same, and COVID-19 is a particularly insidious disease with specific peculiarities that we are just beginning to understand. The easy transmission and resulting widespread nature of COVID-19 creates increased chances of contracting the disease in public when compared to other communicable diseases. 

Person-to-person spread is most likely to occur during close contact with infected persons and is mainly effectuated via droplets of respiratory secretions produced when an infected person cough or sneezes. It is also widely believed that COVID-19 can be transmitted by infected people who are asymptomatic. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), jobs that require sustained or frequent close contact with co-workers, customers, and/or members of the public who may be infected places them at an increased risk of contracting the disease.

By that standard, certain essential workers may be at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 by virtue of their employment. However, OSHA’s guidance on control and prevention of COVID-19 also states that most types of workers have a similar risk of contracting COVID-19 as the general public. In fact, a recent study[1] suggests healthcare professionals actually have a greater risk of contracting the virus outside of the workplace, rather than at work.  This may be due to the strict prevention controls present in the healthcare setting. 

The problem of tracing the source of a COVID-19 infection is an important emerging issue in the workers’ compensation arena, especially considering the evolving medical guidance regarding prevention, the various vaccines available, and the effect on community spread. All of these issues have a direct bearing on whether a particular COVID-19 infection is compensable.

Does the designation of an epidemic or pandemic change the way statutes are interpreted?

There have been questions around whether the designation of COVID-19 as a worldwide pandemic puts it in a completely different category than how communicable diseases are typically defined within legal statutes.

The short answer is no.

There is no cannon of state statutory construction or interpretation that kicks in once a pandemic is declared. While we have seen in several states, the designation of a pandemic has had an impact on the back end by prompting some state legislatures to introduce bills modifying laws or issuing special directives making it easier for frontline or essential workers to have their COVID-19 claim covered under the workers’ compensation system.

Within North Carolina, a legislative push to streamline COVID-19 workers’ compensation claims for specific categories of essential workers did not cross the goal line. Last year, House Bills 1056 and 1057 proposed adding a presumption of workplace exposure and compensability for COVID-19 (and other pandemic) infections in a number of specific industries such as police, healthcare, fire, and anyone designated essential.  However these bills appear to have stalled in Committee. As denied COVID-19 workers’ compensation claims in North Carolina reach the Industrial Commission, it will be essential to monitor the opinions and tailor your business operations and legal practice with respect to COVID-19 accordingly.

What are the critical factors for determining compensability of communicable diseases?

In most states, workers’ compensation injuries fall into one of two categories:

(1) Accidental injuries that can be traced to a specific time, place, and work-related cause (an injury by accident); and

(2) Occupational diseases to which the worker was exposed because of their employment.

The very nature of communicable diseases such as COVID-19 makes it difficult to fit particularly well into either category. In a state-by-state survey of COVID-19 compensability compiled by the National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network (NWCDN), Mimi Metzger of Ritsema & Lyon, LLC, reported that a survey of Colorado case law revealed claimants would typically bring communicable disease claims under both injury by accident and occupational disease categories. However, in most jurisdictions, Colorado included, it appears a potential claimant would have a better chance of proving compensability by pursuing an occupational disease claim. In particular, because COVID-19 is spread from person to person, rather than from exposure to some fixed aspect of the workspace, such as the presence of asbestos, satisfying the requisite causation element may be a difficult proposition.

In North Carolina, the burden for proving the causation requirement for occupational disease claims falls under the  so-called “increased risk” rule (also the majority rule), where the employee must prove the risk of contracting the disease was inherent in the employment and that the employment presented an increased risk of contraction when compared to the general public.

Under this category, occupational diseases are not generally compensable if the risk of contracting the illness is common to the general public. If the disease is not the result of a risk specific to the workplace, there is a chance it would not compensable. The problem for Workers’ Compensation Boards, the Industrial Commission, and practitioners is that communicable diseases, such as COVID-19, are spread in the community and something to which the general public is easily exposed. How does one prove when, where, or how they contracted a virus when there is community spread? How does one defend against these claims and seek to prove a negative:that the worker did not contract the virus at work?

In North Carolina, an increased risk state, a COVID-19 infection would generally not be considered compensable because you would arguably be just as likely to contract the disease out in public as you would be at your job. That said, occupational disease claims are extremely fact-specific, so an important factor to consider is whether the job in question regularly exposes the worker to COVID-19 positive persons, such as certain workers in the healthcare field.

The difficulty in proving exposure can pose an issue for essential workers and others who are regularly exposed to the general public in the course and scope of their employment, but who are also human beings outside of work who, despite social distancing, mask regulations and even vaccines, could just as easily be exposed to COVID-19 outside of work. OSHA has tacitly recognized this proposition in its COVID-19 guidance by acknowledging that jobs requiring close contact with others may place those workers at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and that occupations which do not require that level of close contact may place those workers at a risk level akin to the general public. The fundamentally altered landscape in the United States during intense lockdown measures seems to cut against a defense that a worker could have just as easily contracted the disease by being out in public. However, as states begin to re-open, the likelihood of establishing increased risk at work when compared to the general public seems to decline. 

The following are things to consider when determining whether there will be enough of a causal connection between employment and the contraction of COVID-19:

(1) The employee is a healthcare worker or other frontline worker who regularly comes into contact with COVID-19 positive persons;

(2) Evidence the employee was in direct contact with a COVID-19 positive person at work;

(3) Reliable expert evidence that their employment placed them at a greater risk of contracting the disease when compared to the general public;

(4) A plausible source of contraction at the workplace and incubation period that fits within the infection timeline; and/or

(5) A lack of equally plausible infection sources outside of the workplace. This would also require the demonstration of additional factors, such as:

·         How many people the employee was in close contact with on an average day for 14 days prior to diagnosis;

·         Whether the employee was provided with safety precautions, such as PPE, at work;

·         Whether the employee used PPE outside of work;

·         Hand sanitizing/washing stations at work;

·         Hand sanitizing/washing practices outside of work;

·         The extent to which the employee was or was not engaging in social distancing; and,

·         Other measures that were present both inside and outside the workplace to reduce the risk of contracting the disease.

At this time, there are still questions within North Carolina on how COVID-19 compensability claims will be addressed by the Industrial Commission and the appellate courts. It is critical for an employer to be aware the employee’s burden of proof in regards to increased risk and to take steps to mitigate that risk to the extent practicable.

Now that we have an idea of how COVID-19 workers’ compensation claims are handled in North Carolina, let’s look at some of the steps that an employer can take to reduce their risk of an employee contracting COVID-19 while on the job.

Ways of Limiting Workers’ Compensation Risk for COVID-19

On an almost weekly basis, new research is published on the long-term health outcomes for COVID-19 survivors. An increasing body of research suggests that more serious long-term complications can include inflammation of the heart muscle (cardiovascular disease), lung function abnormalities (respiratory disease), acute kidney injury (renal disease), sensory problems and concentration/memory difficulties (neurological disease), and even psychiatric complications.  While the pandemic data is starting to show some encouraging trends (at least, domestically) in terms of infection and death rates, the need for realistic exposure mitigation strategies should remain a priority for employers.

OSHA initially developed guidance for organizing worker exposure risk into various levels of risk and has provided specific guidance for each level in their “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19,” which is available on their website. (OSHA No. 3990-03, 2020). Additionally, the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) provides guidance in the form of factsheets directed toward specific industries such as airports, banks, construction, critical infrastructure, manufacturing, meat and poultry processing, and transit workers. This information is available on the CDC’s website. These are good starting points for businesses looking to limit the risk of COVID-19 exposure and potential workers’ compensation claims.

Some general guidance from OSHA for employers seeking to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure includes:

·         Promptly investigate any COVID-19 claim and take immediate steps to protect the infected employee and remainder of the workforce;

·         Enhance ventilation by increasing air exchanges in rooms;

·         Modify workstation layouts to ensure all employees remain six feet apart;

·         Close common areas where employees are likely to congregate;

·         Increase the frequency of cleaning frequently touched surfaces;

·         Encourage sick employees to stay home;

·         Send sick employees home immediately;

·         Follow CDC-recommended guidance;

·         For non-healthcare workers, the CDC recommends cloth face coverings in public and where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain;

·         The EEOC indicated that employers could require employees to wear PPE to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, though OSHA leaves the determination of whether to require masks to the employer based on its assessment of risk factors to employees, recommending PPE for anyone in the medium or greater risk groups; and

·         Educate employees about how they can reduce the spread of COVID-19.

OSHA has continued to update their recommendations for mitigating the risk of workplace exposure.  To the extent practicable, employers are encouraged to:

·         Develop an infectious disease preparedness plan;

·         Implement basic infection prevention measures, detailed above; and

·         Develop policies and procedures for prompt identification and isolation of sick employees, if appropriate;

As we continue learning more about this disease, and as more claims work their way through the state systems, we should be able to better assess the relevant workers’ compensation risks. In the meantime, the compensability analysis for COVID-19 in many states, including North Carolina, will continue to be fact-specific and will vary depending upon what is going on in the state in terms of rate of infection, the type of work being performed, comorbid health conditions of the particular infected employee, and the impact of vaccinations. 

If you have questions or wish to discuss this further, please contact Heather Baker, Luke West, or your Teague Campbell workers’ compensation attorney.

This article, in its original format, appeared in the 2020 Larson Series, “Workers’ Compensation Emerging Issues Analysis: COVID-19 in the Workplace”.