COVID-19 Cases Expose Workers’ Comp Failures

SSEU Local 371 President Anthony Wells

By DIANE S. WILLIAMS

Calling for immediate policy changes to fix the broken New York State Workers’ Compensation system, a coalition of unions joined the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) and attorney Robert E. Grey on April 27, to say the Workers’ Compensation system has failed some 250,000 workers who got sick on the job from COVID-19. 

SSEU Local 371 President Anthony Wells

The group introduced policy changes and new state legislation (S.1241 and S.1721) that would make Workers’ Comp more accessible to workers sickened by coronavirus, regardless of language or immigration status. At the virtual press conference, Sen. Jessica Ramos, Chair of the state Labor Committee, said the legislation is an “effort to get more workers just relief.”

The report authored by Grey revealed that of the 250,000 workers with symptomatic COVID-19, less than 10%, or just 21,000 workers, applied for Workers’ Compensation. Only 1,000 workers have received a Workers’ Comp hearing. 

Grey said the WCB ignored or denied 90% of the cases. Other workers lost their cases on appeal and were not compensated. 

The report said the system favors employers, which is not what the Workers’ Comp law was designed to do. The Workers’ Compensation system is the primary resource for employees to replace lost wages, benefits, and pay for medical treatment of work-related injuries or illnesses. 

“It is unconscionable that the Workers’ Comp Board denies hearings and denies workers the right to due process,” said Social Service Employees Union Local 371 President Anthony Wells, who spoke on behalf of DC 37. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic revealed shortages and deficiencies in the Workers’ Comp system,” Wells said. “The WCB does not pay lawyers enough. There is a shortage of stenographers to record cases, and language barriers prevent workers from understanding information and forms. 

“In the pandemic response, employers have redefined what it means to be an ‘essential worker’. Employers have expanded the definition, yet essential workers have not been compensated fairly for going above and beyond,” he said. 

Wells contracted COVID-19 in 2020 after visiting two worksites. Forty to 50 SSEU Local 371 members died from the coronavirus.

Grey’s report said employers often set roadblocks or give misinformation to dissuade sick workers from applying for Workers’ Comp, and they do not make Workers’ Comp information available. Others insist that the employees did not contract the deadly virus at work. The report coincides with Workers Memorial Day, which honors workers who died while on the job, including those lost to  COVID-19. Download it at https://greyandgrey.com/system-failure-release/

Advocates gave five key policy changes that would improve the Workers’ Comp system:

  1. A presumption bill in favor of workers with COVID-19 (S. 1241); 
  2. NYS outreach on Workers’ Compensation and COVID-19; 
  3. WCB gives every case a hearing; 
  4. Expand language and translation access (S 1721); and 
  5. Protect workers from retaliation. 

Labor and state leaders said designating COVID-19 as a work-related illness is necessary. Demanding justice, Wells said, “Many workers gave a lot, putting their health and that of their families at risk to do their jobs. We are taking care of this city during the pandemic. Who will take care of us?” 

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