The Academy’s annual Workers’ Compensation Report on benefits, costs, and coverage is a unique publication that gathers workers’ compensation data from all states into one document. Judge David Torrey lends his expertise to the panel of experts who meet throughout the year to review and guide the information that gets compiled. This year’s Report will be published in October 2020. (The Academy is also looking at the workplace upheavals caused by COVID-19, and recently issued a brief on the varying ways states are handling claims from workers.)
Below, Judge Torrey reflects on his experiences in Pennsylvania’s workers’ compensation adjudication system since the onset of the pandemic.
Q: In the early days of Workers’ Compensation (WC), diseases were not compensable, and even today, they are dealt with differently from injuries. How is Pennsylvania handling claims that involve COVID-19?
A: Under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, any injury is compensable, which means any hurtful or damaging effect to the body. For the insurance adjuster at the first level, at appeal hearings where I preside, and in the courts — in the case of further appeal — we know that one does not need to have an accident or a specified, enumerated, occupational disease to be eligible for compensation. So COVID-19 is potentially compensable under our law. Since April, we’ve had 6,412 total claims (reports of injury) for COVID-19 related injuries so far (at the end of September). About two thirds of the claims are from those working in health care, law enforcement, or as first responders.
The challenge is that workers have to prove causation, which means an exposure to the virus in the midst of work that led to illness. I should note that a second pathway to recovery is potentially available. If the infected worker proves at the outset that COVID-19 (or any disease for that matter), has a substantially greater incidence in his or her occupation, he or she may enjoy a rebuttable presumption of causation. That may ease recovery, conceivably, in cases of front-line healthcare workers. In Workers’ Comp proceedings a worker can represent him or herself, but to prove an infectious disease it is a good idea to get a lawyer, as they are usually better at getting medical reports and establishing exposure and causation.
Our Office of Adjudication started hearing cases on Skype on April 1 and have continued full bore since then, with an occasional session in a courtroom that was set up under strict guidelines created by our governor. All of our files were, fortunately, put online about five years ago and as a consequence we have no backlog of cases. Though we weren’t planning for a pandemic, being already online made the shift to a virtual adjudication system possible immediately — and successful as well.