Articles & Blogs

How Will COVID-19 Affect Massachusetts Workers' Compensation?

Massachusetts
March 27, 2020
March 19, 2020
View ARTICLE

For a claim to be compensable for coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, to prove that “the nature of the employment is such that the hazard of contracting such diseases by an employee is inherent in the employment,” and thus be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, an employee must show that the disease was contracted as a result of (1) a specific incident at work, (2) a series of incidents at work, or (3) an identifiable condition that is not common and necessary to all or a great many occupations.

Since the enactment of the Workers’ Compensation Act in Massachusetts, the legislature and the courts have had to consider the extent to which infectious and contagious diseases are covered under the act.

In 1911, when the Massachusetts state legislature enacted M.G.L. c. 152, §1, the statute did not account for “infectious or contagious diseases.”

In 1917, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court addressed compensability of diseases under the Workers’ Compensation Act.  The court held that:

The act relates to industrial conditions. It has to do with employment of labor. The act affords no relief against general disease. It is not a scheme for health insurance. It deals only with personal injuries following as an immediate result from the employment as its direct cause. In re Maggelet, 228 Mass. 57, 61 (1917) (emphasis added).

The court also stated that:

A disease of mind or body which arises in the course of employment, with nothing more, is not within the act. It must come from or be an injury, although that injury need not be a single definite act but may extend over a continuous period of time…The disease must be, or be traceable directly to, a personal injury peculiar to the employment. Id.

In 1941, M.G.L. c. 152, §1(7A) was amended to include the following language: “Personal injury includes infectious or contagious diseases if the nature of the employment is such that the hazard of contracting such diseases by an employee is inherent in the employment” (emphasis added). Although Maggelet was decided twenty-four years before the 1941 amendment, and the law has been expanded upon since that time, many of the principles it established still hold true today.1

In 1982, the court, drawing from the nature of the purposes of the Act (including the 1941 amendment), and from the pattern of decisions over the years, arrived at the following restatement of the range of harm covered by the Act:

To be compensable, the harm must arise either from a specific incident or series of incidents at work, or from an identifiable condition that is not common and necessary to all or a great many occupations. The injury need not be unique to the trade, and need not, of course, result from the fault of the employer. But it must, in the sense we have described, be identified with the employment. Zerofski's Case at 594-595.

In summary, while there are circumstances where COVID-19 may be compensable under the Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Act, the employee will bear the burden of showing that the mechanism of their exposure is not common and necessary to all or a great many occupations.

1See, e.g. Mercier's Case, 315 Mass. 238, 240 (1943).  (“Disease unaccompanied by such a personal injury is not compensable.”); Pell v. New Bedford Gas & Edison Light Co., 325 Mass. 239, 241-242 (1950).  (“ ‘[The Act] awards compensation for disease when it rightly may be described as a personal injury. A disease . . . must come from or be an injury, although that injury need not be a single definite act but may extend over a continuous period of time…The disease must be, or be traceable directly to, a personal injury peculiar to the employment.’ ”);  Towle v. John Hancock Mut. Life Ins. Co., 333 Mass. 345, 347 (1955).  (“…disease is compensable only where it rightly may be described as a personal injury.”);  Begin's Case, 354 Mass. 594, 596-597 (1968).  (“ ‘The [A]ct affords no relief against general disease. It is not a scheme for health insurance. It deals only with personal injuries following as an immediate result from the employment as its direct cause…A disease of mind or body which arises in the course of employment, with nothing more, is not within the act.’ ”);  Albanese's Case, 378 Mass. 14, 18 (1979).  (“ ‘[a] disease of mind or body which arises in the course of employment, with nothing more, [and which] is not within the [A]ct.’ ”);  Zerofski's Case, 385 Mass. 590, 594 (1982).  (“To be compensable, injury must arise ‘out of’ as well as ‘in the course of’ employment, and ‘[a] disease of the mind or body which arises in the course of employment, with nothing more, is not within the [A]ct.’ ”).