James “Mike” Anderson was a hospital employee in suburban Philadelphia with a low-profile but critical job: changing air filters in rooms where patients with Covid-19 were seen.
By late March, the county where he worked was reporting as many as 90 cases per day. Anderson, 51, handled air filters and other surfaces that might have been contaminated with the deadly virus, which is also known to hang in the air.
In April, Anderson came down with what he thought was a cold, according to his family’s lawyer, David Stern. On 13 April he was rushed to the hospital, where he died of acute respiratory distress syndrome from Covid-19, according to the county coroner. He left behind a wife and two children, ages five and nine.
Anderson was exposed to the virus at work, the lawyer contends, making his family eligible for workers’ compensation death benefits paid by his employer’s insurer.
“His family deserves to have that income replaced,” Stern said. “Their husband and father certainly can’t be.”
But in a 16 June response to Stern’s death benefits claim, St Mary medical center denied all allegations.
As the Covid-19 toll climbs, sick workers and families of the dead face another burden: fighting for benefits from workers’ compensation systems that, in some states, are stacked against them.
In interviews with lawyers and families across the nation, KHN found that healthcare workers – including nurses’ aides, physician assistants and maintenance workers – have faced denials or long-shot odds of getting benefits paid. In some cases, those benefits amount to an ambulance bill. In others, they would provide lifetime salary replacement for a spouse.
Legal experts say that in some states Covid-19 falls into a long-standing category of diseases like a cold or the flu – conditions not covered by workers’ compensation – with no plans to change that. Other states force workers to prove they contracted the virus at work, rather than from a family member or in the community.
“We are asking people to risk their lives every single day – not just doctors, nurses and first responders, but also nurses’ aides and grocery store clerks,” said Laurie Pohutsky, a Democratic Michigan lawmaker who introduced a bill to help essential workers get coverage more easily. “These people are heroes, but we have to actually back those words up with actions.”
In at least 16 states and Puerto Rico, officials have passed measures to make it easier for workers infected with the coronavirus to qualify for benefits for lost wages, hospital bills or death. Similar bills are pending in other states, but some face opposition from business groups over costs.
Many of the proposed actions would reverse the status quo, forcing employers to prove workers did not catch the virus at work. Bills vary in the scope of which workers they cover. Some protect all who worked on-site during stay-at-home orders. Others are limited to first responders and healthcare workers. Some would cover only workers who get sick during states of emergency, while others would cover a longer period of time.
An early glimpse of data shows that healthcare workers 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 workers have been infected, a figure the agency acknowledges is an undercount. KHN and the Guardian have identified more than 780 who have died and published tributes to 139 of them to date.
The cost of covering the nation’s 9.6 million first responders and health workers nationally could range from $1bn to $16bn, according to the National Council on Compensation Insurance, which provides insurance rate recommendations for 38 states. The bill is paid by employers who buy workers’ compensation insurance, employers that self-insure and taxpayers, who support government agencies.
Those estimates do not include New York or California, where Governor Gavin Newsom’s executive order broadening coverage through 5 July is projected to cost about $1.2bn.
In May, Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill that would create a federal fund for essential workers, including healthcare personnel, who get sick or die from the coronavirus. The Pandemic Heroes Compensation Act would be modeled after the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.
In Pennsylvania, where Anderson worked, there is no presumption that Covid-19 is acquired on the job.
Stern, the lawyer for Anderson’s family, filed a “fatal claim” in May with the state workers’ compensation board, which passed it on to the employer.
A St Mary medical center spokesperson 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 knew Anderson for over 30 years. He said co-workers are reeling from the death of a man who “was enthusiastic, gregarious, friendly”.
“His loss to the hospital is real,” Banchi said. “Some people lift spirits, some people make you glad you came that day, and Mike was one of those people.”