The COVID-19 pandemic put a significant strain on our healthcare workers and frontline workers. The Washington State Department of Health reports that more than 430,000 people have been infected with the virus statewide since the start of the pandemic. Healthcare workers and frontline workers have additional risks of exposure—and many were forced to quarantine and miss work at some point during the pandemic.
On May 11, 2021, Washington state Governor Jay Inslee signed a new worker protection legislative package. The workplace safety package includes additional legal protections for healthcare workers and frontline workers during emergencies. In this article, our Seattle workers’ compensation lawyers provide a more comprehensive overview of the new workers’ comp protections for healthcare and frontline workers during pandemics.
Washington State Passes the Health Emergency Labor Standards Act (HELSA)
As part of the legislative package, Governor Inslee signed the Health Emergency Labor Standards Act (HELSA) into law. The reformed legislation is designed to provide more permanent workplace safety protections to healthcare workers and frontline workers during public emergencies, including during pandemics. Here are four key things to know about HELSA:
- An Occupational Disease Presumption During a Public Health Emergency: To claim workers’ compensation benefits, a worker must prove that their injury/illness is related to their employment. HELSA creates an automatic presumption of workers’ comp coverage for certain healthcare workers and frontline workers who contract an illness/disease during a declared public emergency. In other words, the new Washington state law will presume that a healthcare/frontline worker contracted a contagious or infectious disease at work if that disease is a public health emergency.
- Workers Must Submit Proof of Illness to Qualify for Benefits: To bring a workers’ compensation claim for an occupational disease while relying on the presumption created by HELSA, a covered healthcare worker or frontline worker must provide proof of illness. In general, this would mean providing some form of official medical documentation that confirms the diagnosis. The State notes that a positive COVID-19 would satisfy the requirements—meaning a person may not actually need to make an appointment with a doctor in every case. Once the diagnosis of an infectious or contagious disease that is subject to a public health emergency is confirmed, it will be presumed that the worker is covered by workers’ compensation.
- An Employer Can Rebut the Presumption of Coverage: Under HELSA, any healthcare worker or frontline worker that contracts a disease during a publicly declared pandemic will be assumed to have gotten that illness at work. However, the presumption can be rebutted by an employer. The new Washington state law creates a high burden for employers. The statute requires an employer to provide “clear and convincing evidence” that proves that the worker was infected outside of the workplace or worked from home for at least 14 days prior to being infected.
- The Law Enhances Voluntary Accommodation Rights (Protective Equipment): The Health Emergency Labor Standards Act also provides healthcare workers and frontline workers in Washington with enhanced rights to voluntarily use protective equipment during a declared public health emergency. Under HELSA, an employer who requires staff to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) during a public health emergency must provide that equipment at no cost to the worker. Additionally, if a healthcare worker or frontline worker wants to wear additional voluntary PPE, HELSA guarantees their right to do so. As an example, a frontline worker could decide to wear protective latex gloves for their entire shift even if their employer does not require them to do so. Under HELSA, an employer must respect and accommodate that individual choice during a public emergency.
The Health Emergency Labor Standards Act (HELSA) permanently codifies some of the emergency workers’ comp protections that were put into place to help healthcare workers and frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Should any similar public emergency be declared in the future, enhanced workplace safety protections would automatically take effect.
Get Help From a Washington Workers’ Compensation Lawyer
At The Walthew Law Firm, our Washington workers’ comp attorneys are committed to protecting the legal rights and financial interests of our clients and their family members. Give us a call today or contact our law firm online for a free, no obligation case evaluation. With law offices in Seattle and Everett, we represent injured workers all around the surrounding area, including in Tacoma, Kent, Bellingham, Renton, and Olympia.