Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a rise in occupational exposure claims filed for employees who allege they have contracted COVID-19 in the course and scope of their employment. However, unlike other workers’ compensation claims, COVID-19 claims include a “rebuttable presumption.”
On September 14, 2020, Governor Murphy signed into law Senate Bill 2380, a bill addressing workers’ compensation benefits for COVID-19-positive employees who classify as “essential employees” in New Jersey. Subsequently, it created the rebuttable presumption of workers’ compensation coverage for COVID-19 cases contracted by “essential employees” during a public health emergency. The law is retroactive to March 9, 2020.
What is an essential employee?
Pursuant to the bill, an essential employee means an employee in the public or private sector who, during a state of emergency:
This law does not mean that the employer is completely responsible for an essential employee who contracts COVID-19. Instead, it means that rather than the essential employee having the burden to prove they were exposed to COVID at work, it is simply assumed that they were. The presumption puts the onus on the employer to disprove the claim. It is important, therefore, for employers to carefully conduct their investigation to ensure the employee did not contract it from anywhere else. Although this may be difficult to ascertain, serving the petitioner with specific COVID -19 occupational interrogatories is a good place to start. For example, asking detailed questions regarding an employee’s exposure to family and friends, holiday gatherings, mask use, vaccines, travel exposure, if they have children who attended school or if they engaged in any outside employment or volunteer opportunities can be helpful.
It is vital that employers be meticulous while conducting their investigations into COVID-19 occupational exposure petitions to be able to defend against these emerging workers’ compensation claims.