James “Mike” Anderson was a hospital employee in suburban Philadelphia with a low-profile but critical job: replacing air filters in rooms where patients with Covid-19 were seen.
At the end of March, the county where he worked reported as many as 90 cases per day. Anderson, 51, handled air filters and other surfaces that may have been contaminated with the deadly virus, which is also known to hang in the air.
In April, Anderson came up with what he thought was a cold, according to the family’s lawyer, David Stern. On April 13, he was rushed to the hospital, where he died of acute respiratory distress syndrome from Covid-19, according to the county leader. He left a wife and two children, ages five and nine.
Anderson was exposed to the virus at work, the lawyer claims, making his family eligible for workers’ compensation for deaths paid by his employer’s insurer.
“His family deserves to receive that income,” Stern said. “Their husband and father really can’t be.”
But in a June 16 response to Stern’s claims of death benefits, St Mary’s Medical Center denied all charges.
As Covid-19 tolls climb, sick workers and dead families face another burden: fighting for benefits from workers’ compensation schemes piled up against them in some states.
In interviews with lawyers and families across the country, KHN found that health care professionals – including nurses’ assistants, medical assistants and maintenance workers – have been faced with denial or long-term odds of receiving compensation. In some cases, these benefits amount to an ambulance bill. In others, they would provide a lifetime salary for a spouse.
Legal experts say that in some states, Covid-19 falls into a long-standing category of illnesses such as the common cold or flu – conditions not covered by workers’ compensation – with no plans to change it. Other states force workers to prove they were infected with the virus at work, rather than from a family member or in the community.
“We ask people to risk their lives every day – not just doctors, nurses and first responders, but also nurses’ assistants and grocery stores,” said Laurie Pohutsky, a Democratic lawmaker in Michigan who introduced a bill to help key workers get coverage easier. . “These people are heroes, but we actually have to support these words with actions.”
In at least 16 states and Puerto Rico, officials have taken measures to make it easier for workers infected with coronavirus to qualify for benefits for lost wages, hospital bills or deaths. Similar bills await in other states, but some face opposition from business groups over costs.
Many of the proposed measures would reverse the status quo and force employers to prove that workers did so. not catch the virus at work. Bills vary in the extent of which workers they cover. Some protect everyone who worked on site during orders at home-at-home. Others are limited to first responders and health care professionals. Some would only cover workers who become ill during emergencies, while others would cover a longer period of time.
An early glimpse of the data shows that healthcare professionals and first responders, two groups hit hard by the virus, make up the majority of those seeking benefits. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that more than 95,000 healthcare professionals have been infected, a figure the agency recognizes is a sub-number. KHN and the Guardian have identified more than 780 who have died and published tributes to 139 of them so far.
The cost of covering the country’s 9.6 million first responders and health workers nationally can range from $ 1 billion to $ 16 billion, according to the National Council on Compensation Insurance, which provides recommendations on insurance rates for 38 states. The bill is paid by employers who buy workers’ compensation insurance, employers who self-insure and taxpayers, who support government agencies.
These estimates do not include New York or California, where Governor Gavin Newsom’s expansion of the executive order through July 5 is estimated to cost about $ 1.2 billion.
In May, Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth and a two-party group of lawmakers introduced a bill that would create a federal fund for key workers, including health care workers, who become ill or die from the coronavirus. The Pandemic Heroes Compensation Act was to be modeled after September 11.
In Pennsylvania, where Anderson worked, there is no presumption that Covid-19 will be acquired at work.
Stern, the lawyer for Anderson’s family, submitted a “deadly claim” in May to the State Workers’ Compensation Board, which handed it over to the employer.
A spokesman for St Mary Medical Center confirmed in an email that Anderson worked there for 23 years and was a maintenance mechanic. She would not discuss his case. “We are extremely saddened by his death,” she wrote.
Mark Banchi volunteers with hospital chaplains and has known Anderson for over 30 years. He said employees stumbled upon the death of a man who “was enthusiastic, incredible, friendly”.
“His loss in the hospital is real,” Banchi said. “Some people lift their spirits, others make you glad you came that day and Mike was one of those people.”
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a non-profit news service that covers health issues. It is an editorially independent program for KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.