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Generally, there are two different ways that an employee can seek workers’ compensation benefits in Tennessee or Georgia. The first way is that the worker has an accident at work such as a slip and fall that causes him/her to need medical care. The second way is for the worker to suffer an “occupational illness.”

Whether workers can file a work injury claim for an occupational illness generally depends on the following:

  • The worker must be an employee. The worker must be an employee of a company. Independent contractors normally can’t file a workers’ compensation claim.
  • The illness or disease must be “occupational.” This means that the worker contracted the disease while working for a company either at the company work site or at sites that employer controls. A common example of occupational illness covered by workers’ compensation is when employees who work at coal mines contract black lung disease.
  • The illness or disease must be particular to work. This means the disease must be one that is generally more likely to occur at the workplace than while someone is in the general public.

Each state has their own laws on workers’ compensation and occupational disease. For example, Tennessee defines “occupational diseases” as having arisen from employment if:

  • The illness is a natural condition of work
  • Employment is the proximate cause of the disease
  • The disease didn’t arise from a hazard that was “equally exposed outside of the employment”
  • The illness is incidental to the character of the employment and not independent of the relation of employer and employee
  • The illness is due to an employment risk – though that risks don’t have to have been foreseen
  • There’s a direct link between the workplace conditions and the occupational diseases

The COVID-19 crisis is raising questions and lawsuits about whether illnesses and deaths caused by the disease qualify for workers’ compensation benefits.

The most direct way to protect our health care workers, first responders, and other essential workers should be entitled to occupational illness coverage is for the individual states to pass laws clarifying when and how COVID-19 illnesses qualify for occupational disease coverage in the workers’ compensation statutes.

Without a specific law, the workers’ compensation claims will likely be divided into the following categories:

Essential service workers

These workers include nurses, doctors, and other health care workers who work with COVID-19 patients. They include EMT services, police officers, and firefighters. They may include delivery workers and food service workers who must be in close contact with the public.

Nurses, for example, are constantly exposed to the risk of contracting COVID-19. That’s precisely why so many nurses need protective equipment. The difficulty is in determining how a nurse or other essential worker acquired the disease since they can also contract COVID-19 at home, at a supermarket, or any place they go outside of work. The argument in favoring of qualifying nurses for workers’ compensation COVID-19 claims is that their risk of exposure to the disease is much higher than for the general public.

Nonessential workers

Workers who aren’t providing emergency services such as workers who work from home are less likely to be covered if they develop COVID-19 because they will have a difficult time showing that their type of job caused the disease or that their risk of exposure is higher than that for the general public.

The ability to qualify for workers’ compensation may ultimately be determined by how the worker contracted the disease. Courts and referees, as a practical matter, may prioritize essential workers over non-essential workers.

At Wagner & Wagner Attorneys at Law, our Chattanooga workers’ compensation lawyers understand what types of accidents and occupational illnesses cause workers to lose time from work to treat their injuries and diseases. To discuss your rights to workers’ compensation for any disease including COVID-19,  call us at 423-756-7923 or fill out our contact form to schedule a free consultation. We represent injured workers in Chattanooga, Cleveland, and throughout Tennessee, and in North Georgia.