Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation is moving forward with New Claims, Hearings and Mediations Following the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic
With the outbreak of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), Pennsylvania’s Governor, its legislature, and administrative bureaus and courts have been scrambling to handle the legal aspects of the pandemic. Instantly, Governor Wolf signed an executive order relaxing the statutory regulations regarding Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation cases as the Commonwealth deals with providing relief for injured workers with the almost compete shut down of the economy, businesses, and courts.
Our office has continued to file new Claims, attend WC hearings, and mediations during this pandemic. Workers’ compensation cases already in the pipeline and being litigated will continue along their path, albeit on a modified process and schedule. New cases will move forward as well. Like most other forms of litigation in the Commonwealth, there are currently no in-person hearings being conducted. Governor Wolf closed all the Workers Compensation hearing offices to the public. Instead, Workers’ Compensation Judges are utilizing telephonic means to keep cases moving along. Most cases that are at the stage requiring testimony have been pushed ahead to a later date. However, mediations of Workers’ Compensation disputes are continuing via call-in conference sessions in which Judges, the attorneys and the Claimants participate by telephone just as if the mediation were taking place at the hearing office. Many current cases have resolved in this fashion, as there has been a renewed interest on all sides to get closure and finality during such a turbulent time.
If a case has resolved, either by discussion of the parties or following a successful mediation, Judges are scheduling settlement/resolution hearings to consummate the deal. Before the outbreak of COVID-19, settlement documents needed to be presented live to a workers’ compensation Judge, and the injured worker was required to appear live before that Judge to verify his or her understanding of the settlement terms and desire to go forward with the agreement. This is not feasible in the current environment. To effectuate these settlements, Governor Wolf signed an executive order relaxing the requirements for Workers’ Compensation settlements and Judges are now authorized, at least during this crisis, to approve Settlements (compromise and release agreements) following receipt of the documents and testimony by telephonic means from the injured worker and his or her attorney. The need for additional witness signatures on the documents has also been temporarily set aside by the Governor. As long as the Workers’ Compensation Judge is confident that the individual participating in the telephonic hearing is the injured worker whose case is pending before the court, and that injured worker fully understands the Settlement and is not under the influence of any substances that would impair his or her ability to understand the terms of the settlement, then the Workers’ Compensation Judges are authorized to formally approve the agreement and effectuate the settlement.
Historically, viruses or diseases contracted at work would be treated as any other workplace injury—the worker had the burden of proving that he or she was infected by the disease or virus while at work and while working within the course and scope of employment. The only exception to this has always been certain enumerated “occupational diseases” which the legislature carved out as particularly susceptible to workers in certain professions. To be sure, the Workers’ Compensation Act enumerates these specific diseases, such as Black Lung, Tuberculosis, Asbestosis and Hepatitis and gives these ailments a “rebuttable presumption” that they were contracted while working in specific occupations. The reason is obvious as firefighters, police officers, miners, health care workers, prison guards, etc. work in high–risk occupations which are much more conducive to exposure to such diseases. The effect of the rebuttable presumption cannot be understated. The injured workers in these enumerated occupations, and who contract these specific aliments, are presumed to have been exposed to them at work; and it is the employer’s obligation to rebut this premise and prove that the exposure occurred elsewhere. This is a significant advantage afforded the inflicted worker in proving the case and obtaining benefits.
We turn to the current pandemic. In response to the overwhelming amount of cases of COVID–19 in the Commonwealth, the Pennsylvania Legislature is currently considering adding the Coronaviirus (COVID-19) to the list of enumerated diseases deserving of the rebuttable presumption of workplace exposure in certain occupations. The legislation currently being considered was sent to the Senate, out of Committee, by unanimous and bipartisan vote, and is expected to be passed soon by the House and signed by Governor Wolf.
If you believe you have contracted the Coronavirus (COVID-19) at work, you should immediately inform a supervisor at work that you believe you contracted the virus at work. There are strict notice requirements under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, even for viruses or diseases, and you must put your employer on notice of the potential claim. Notably, if you are not in those specific, legislatively enumerated occupations, workers’ compensation benefits are still available under the Act. Although there is not presently a “rebuttable presumption” yet applied to COVID-19, it is clear that certain occupations are more susceptible to contagion than others, such as: grocery and retail workers, hospital staff, first responders, truck drivers, etc. These are the workers who are at highest risk for the virus while almost 90% of the rest of the Commonwealth is restricted to their homes. If you believe you have contracted COVID–19 at work, you should immediately speak with an experienced workers’ compensation specialist to review your options. Feel free to give us a call at 717-238-1657 for a free consultation.