New bill may help essential workers with COVID-19

A Virginia Senate committee recently killed a bill that would extend COVID-19-related workers’ compensation to first responders, teachers and health care providers.  However, this bill may pass when the Senate reconvenes this winter.

essential workers

Section 65.2-400 of the Code of Virginia defines an occupational disease as follows: “a disease arising out of and in the course of employment, but not an ordinary disease of life to which the general public is exposed outside of the employment.” A bill introduced by Delegate Jay Jones (D-Norfolk) would make COVID-19 an occupational disease under this section.

The bill offers a rebuttable presumption that COVID-19 arose out of and in the course of the employment for certain professions. Those professions include firefighters, emergency medical services personnel, law enforcement, first responders, certain healthcare providers, and school board employees. The bill had passed the House of Delegates.

“I think everyone in this committee would like to do this, but the financial impact on the state and localities is so enormous that we’d certainly need to take a couple months to look at it,” Sen. Steve Newman, (R-Lynchburg), said before the vote. “We need a couple months, and we can do that sometime in January.”

While this bill would allow for presumptive workers’ compensation coverage for certain professions, that presumption could be overcome by a showing that COVID-19 was, more likely than not, contracted outside of the employment. Given the highly contagious nature of COVID-19 and its ability to linger on surfaces for several days, this bill may not offer enough protection to the covered professions.

The Virginia Senate had previously struck down a similar bill, which did not include school board employees within the covered professions. Unlike the House version, the Senate version would have afforded the same presumptions to correctional officers.

If this re-proposed bill becomes law in 2021, it will then be up to the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission to determine how to enforce that law on a case-by-case basis. Only time will tell how effective it would be in protecting our essential workers.