The state workers compensation system has begun to receive its first claims for workplace-related exposure to coronavirus.

Workplace safety experts say they also expect to soon see other claims that are related to the pandemic: Injuries suffered at home by Mainers who are working remotely without the benefit of ergonomically designed workstations.

“Spare bedrooms, basements and kitchen counters are newly transformed into eight-hour work spaces that often are not appropriately engineered for comfort or safety,” said Tony Payne, senior vice president for external affairs at MEMIC, the Portland-based workers compensation insurer. He said the company’s prevention team is working with employers to help them protect home workers, providing guidance and suggestions.

At least 208 Maine workers had filed notifications by Monday of workplace exposure to coronavirus since mid-February, when the system began coding reports to track COVID-19, said John Rohde, executive director of the Maine Workers Compensation Board. He said the number could be even higher because some notifications filed before the COVID-19 coding was established were categorized simply as exposure to “a contagious disease.”

“The majority are health care providers, by a pretty wide margin,” Rohde said. “It’s been pretty steady since mid March.”

Mainers who contract the disease on the job will be eligible for worker’s compensation benefits, while those who are quarantined and do not test positive will not.

However, workers who are quarantined for two weeks but do not test positive would be eligible for up to 80 hours of paid sick time under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, a new federal law that applies to companies with fewer than 500 employees. The law also provides partial paid leave to care for children who are home because of school closures, or to care for a family member sick with COVID-19. Health care employers are not required to offer the benefit.

Employees could also be eligible for expanded unemployment benefits during the quarantine period under both state and federal laws that waive the one-week waiting period to apply for unemployment benefits.

Matt Harmon, senior vice president for claims at MEMIC, said the insurer has received 117 notices of exposure to coronavirus from Maine workers, largely from a mix of health care providers including home care workers and emergency first responders. None of those exposures has resulted in a positive diagnosis, Harmon said, so MEMIC has yet to pay out any claims.

“But that will likely change, we are only four to six weeks into this here and we know there will be some folks with positive tests coming back,” he said.

MEMIC provides worker’s compensation insurance for about 60 percent of the state’s employers, Rohde said.

Jeff Eddinger, a senior division executive for regulatory business management with the National Council on Compensation Insurance, a nationwide industry association for compensation insurers based in Florida, said insurers nationwide are anticipating a wave of COVID-19 related claims.

“It’s safe to say there is going to be an impact, there will be claims due to this disease,” Eddinger said. But he pointed out that claims overall were declining, because many workplaces have closed or scaled back operations, and he said the workers’ compensation system in the U.S. was healthy enough that it should be able to respond to COVID-19 related claims.

Harmon said MEMIC’s claim numbers have dropped by more than 50 percent over the last month.

“If you think about it broadly, on Sept. 11 there were 3,000 workers who lost their lives in a single day, and workers’ compensation covered all of those workers,” Eddinger said. “I think the system will be able to address and pay any claims related to COVID-19.”

On Tuesday, the Maine CDC announced that 734 people have tested positive for the illness and that 20 had died, while the U.S. CDC was reporting 579,005 positive cases and 22,252 deaths nationwide, including U.S. territories.

Harmon said MEMIC hasn’t seen any reports yet of workplace injuries from workers at home in Maine, but the company has received such claims from workers in others states where it also does business, and he expects to see them in Maine eventually. Payne, the MEMIC spokesman, said the company is focused on trying to prevent the soft tissue injuries that can result from poor ergonomics, such as neck, wrist, back, shoulder and eye strains.

Employers seem to be aware of the issues switching to a home-based work space can entail, said Christine Dube, a physical therapist who works on injury prevention in the workplace with a number of Maine companies. Some employers, for example, are encouraging workers to bring their chairs home from their offices.

But Dube also advises workers to take care of themselves by making sure their home work space is comfortable and safe.

“Make the best out of what you have available and get creative,” Dube said. “Try to keep your set up as similar to your work space at the office. Try to change postures often. Your best position is often your next position. Take stretch breaks.”

Some physical therapists are offering remote consultations by phone or video conferencing. “It’s not ideal to try to do it via video conferencing,” Dube said, “but it is what we can do for now.”

Rohde, at the worker’s compensation board, believes the state is well-positioned to handle and process claims related to COVID-19 – although like most other state agencies the board is currently conducting most of its work remotely with video and telephone conferences.

Rohde said it was important for workers to report suspected workplace injuries or exposures to contagious diseases, like COVID-19, quickly and for employers to quickly notify insurers or their self-insurance departments.

He said the sooner an exposure or injury can be investigated the more quickly preventive measures can be put in place to protect others.

Harmon said MEMIC was likely to take a fairly liberal approach to compensation claims involving a COVID-19 infected worker, noting that in most cases the exposure is going to be well-documented.

He said there will be some very costly cases involving workers who become severely ill or even die, but for insurers and business, the ultimate cost of COVID-19 infected workers who get sick on the job is hard to predict.

“It’s still very early in this process and too soon to draw any hard or fast conclusions,” Harmon said. “We really aren’t going to know for for several more months.”

 


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