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OP-ED: Essential workers need better safety net

Michael Felsen
Tribune News Service
This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. (NIAID/TNS)

A disproportionate number of those who have gotten sick or died from COVID-19 have been people of color and immigrants. Not surprisingly, many of them, considered “essential workers,” have been on the job. These two facts together make a compelling case for how we ought to respond when these workers become casualties of the virus.

During the past several months, while many Americans have been sheltering in place under stay-at-home orders, those who work in what are deemed essential businesses — hospitals, transit systems, warehouses, grocery stores, food processing plants — have continued punching in, away from the safety of home.

So what happens when these workers find themselves unable to work because they get sick? How do their families make ends meet if they die?

For more than a hundred years, the workers’ compensation system has been the answer — albeit an imperfect one — to that question. In exchange for giving up the right to sue their employer, workers who get injured or killed on the job are entitled, on a no-fault basis, to various benefits. These include medical care and partial payments for lost wages on account of the employee’s work-related disability, and payments to dependent family members if the worker dies from the illness or injury.

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But illnesses like the common cold or seasonal flu don’t qualify, because they could have been contracted anywhere. How do you prove where you caught a cold? Using similar reasoning, a worker who falls ill from COVID-19 shouldn’t qualify either, right?

Not so fast. What’s different with this virus is that under state emergency orders and “advisories,” certain workers have been told that they are too essential to not keep coming to work. And so they are exposed on a daily basis to fellow workers who might be ill, or to members of the public who’ve ventured out for necessary goods or services. As a direct result, these workers — often low-wage, and disproportionately black, brown, and immigrants — have been far more likely to contract the virus than those who’ve stayed home.

For this reason, essential workers who contract COVID-19 should not need to prove they got sick at work in order to qualify for workers’ compensation.

In Massachusetts, a bill recently introduced in the legislature provides that if you’re an essential worker, and you’ve fallen ill — or died — from COVID-19, you and your family are covered. Period. You don’t have to show you contracted the virus at work, and employers or insurers can’t snoop around in your private life, trying to prove you got sick outside of work.

With essential workers covered for illness and death caused by COVID-19, comp claims and premiums will likely go up. Some businesses might need government assistance to pay these bills. But these workers are literally putting their lives on the line. Regardless of race, wherever they live, they deserve the same protections that are under consideration in Massachusetts.

That was true even before the events of the past weeks have heightened our awareness of systemic inequalities that gnaw away at the fiber of this country.

As we acknowledge the exceptional toll the virus has exacted on communities of color — in significant part because so many have had to keep going to work — basic fairness calls on us to make sure these workers actually receive the protections they need.

— Michael Felsen of Jamaica Plain, Mass., retired in 2018 after a 39-year career as an attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor, serving from 2010-2018 as its New England Regional Solicitor. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.