New Workers’ Compensation Rate Filing Expands COVID-19 Surcharge Tiers

workers' compensation

The California Workers Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau has amended its 2021 rate filing to make its earlier recommended COVID-19 surcharge more equitable.

The Rating Bureau is leaving unchanged its overall recommendation that benchmark rates be increased an average of 2.6% for policies incepting on or after Jan. 1, 2021.

But it modified an earlier recommendation that a COVID-19 surcharge of $.06 per $100 of payroll be applied to all policies in favor of a six-tiered surcharge ranging from one cent per $100 of payroll for the least-risky sectors to a high of 24 cents for the riskiest. All sectors will be placed in one of six tiers depending on their relative share of COVID-19 claims that had been filed through the end of August.

The Insurance Department just wrapped up hearings on the rate filing in early October and will announce whether it approves the rate filing or makes changes.

Had the pandemic not hit, the Rating Bureau would not be asking for a rate increase, but a reduction of 1.5%. The Rating Bureau estimates that estimate that the cost of COVID-19 claims on Jan. 1, 2021 to Aug. 31, 2021 policies is 4.1%, or $0.06 per $100 of payroll to an average of $1.56 per $100 of payroll.

The benchmark rates (or pure premium rates) are published as guideposts for insurers to price their policies and insurers are not required to follow them, although most do to some degree.

While the Bureau earlier said it would not apply COVID-19 claims towards employers’ individual experience modifiers (X-Mods), the surcharge will apply to all employers, even those who have not seen any coronavirus-related illness claims.

Below is a list of the six different surcharge tiers and some of the NAIC industry class codes that would fit into each of them. (Please note that the two digits are the first two numbers of four-digit class codes and all class codes that start with those two digits will see the surcharge applied, unless otherwise noted with a four-digit code).

1 cent

  • Management of Companies and Enterprises (55)
  • Information technology (51)
  • Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services (54)

3 cents

  • Outside Sales (8742)
  • Finance and Insurance (52)
  • Clerical (8810)
  • Mining, Quarrying, and Oil and Gas Extraction (21)
  • Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation (71)
  • Real Estate and Rental and Leasing (53)

6 cents

  • Administrative Support and Waste Management and Remediation Services (56)
  • Wholesale Trade (42)
  • Construction (23)
  • Educational Services (61)
  • Manufacturing (31)
  • Other Services (except Public Administration) (81)

12 cents

  • Public Administration (92)
  • Retail Trade (44)
  • Transportation and Warehousing (48)

18 cents

  • Accommodation and Food Services (72)
  • Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing and Hunting (11)

24 cents

  • Healthcare and Social Assistance (excluding Physicians, Dentists, and Daycare) (62)

The surcharge in many cases amounts to a roughly 30% increase over the indicated rate without a specific surcharge.

Mandatory Employer Sign-ups for CalSavers Have Begun

CalSavers

If your company does not offer its staff a 401(k) plan, you need to be aware of deadlines for registering your employees in the CalSavers Retirement Savings Program.

The program is designed to help California workers who do not have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan start socking away money for their retirement. Employers with five or more workers are required to give their employees access to the CalSavers program, which was launched in 2019.

Deadlines for when employers have to adopt the program depend on their size:

  • Businesses with more than 100 employees: Sept. 30, 2020
  • Businesses with more than 50 employees: June 30, 2021
  • Businesses with five or more employees: June 30, 2022

Employers that miss adoption deadlines or fail to allow employees to participate in the program, can face penalties of $250 per employee if they don’t comply within 90 days of receiving notice from the state. The penalty increases to $500 per employee if the employer fails to comply within 180 days of receiving notice.

If your business has more than 100 employees and missed the Sept. 30 deadline, you still have time to avoid penalties by signing up now.

How it works

The program enables eligible employees to automatically contribute a portion of their paycheck to a Roth individual retirement account (IRA).

Under the law, any California employer with five or more workers must give them access to CalSavers, unless they offer a 401(k) or similar employer-sponsored retirement plan. While it’s mandatory for employers to offer CalSavers to their employees, workers are not obligated to sign up.

Under the program, employers are not required to make contributions on behalf of their employees and will incur no fees. They will be required to submit employee contributions through automatic payroll deductions.

Here’s what your employees need to know about CalSavers:

  • Accounts are portable and can be moved to another job.
  • The funds are owned by the saver, regardless of whether they leave their job.
  • Their IRA offers investment options, so the saver can choose where to park their money.
  • Employees can choose how much they want to set aside of each paycheck, up to 8%.
  • Employees can set aside a maximum of $6,000 a year into the account, or $7,000 if they are age 50 and over.
  • Fees are less than $1 per $100 deposited (they range from 0.825% to 0.95%).
  • Employees can opt out at any time.

Setting up your business’s account

Employers that want to sign up their staff can apply here (www.employer.calsavers.com).

When setting up the account you’ll need to:

  • Create a payroll list to enroll employees.
  • Assign a person in your human resources to manage the account and transfers.
  • If you use a payroll service, you will need to give them access to your account to handle the transfers.

Once you’ve created your company account, you can set up auto-enrollment for all of your new employees. Once you add a new employee to your account, they will receive an e-mail containing plan details and default elections.

Thirty days later, the deductions will be automatically withdrawn from their next paycheck and deposited in their Roth IRA.

The Big Question: Can Employers Require Workers to Vaccinate?

COVID-19 vaccine

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and more employers bring staff back to the workplace, many businesses are considering implementing mandatory vaccination policies for seasonal flus as well as the coronavirus.

A safe and widely accessible vaccine would allow businesses to open their workplaces again and start returning to a semblance of normalcy. But employers are caught in the difficult position of having to protect their workers and customers from infection in their facilities as well as respecting the wishes of individual employees who may object to being required to be vaccinated. 

The issue spans Equal Opportunity Employment Commission regulations and guidance, as well as OSHA workplace safety rules and guidance. With that in mind, employers mulling mandatory vaccination policies need to consider:

  • How to decide if such a policy right for the company,
  • How they will enforce the policy,
  • The legal risks of enforcing the policy, and
  • Employer responsibilities in administering the policy.

Proceed with caution

A number of law firms have written blogs and alerts on the subject of mandatory vaccinations, and the overriding consensus recommendation is to proceed with caution.

In 2009 pandemic guidance issued during the H1N1 influenza outbreak, the EEOC stated that both the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII bar an employer from compelling its workers to be vaccinated for influenza regardless of their medical condition or religious beliefs — even during a pandemic.

The guidance stated that under the ADA, an employee with underlying medical conditions should be entitled to an exemption from mandatory vaccination (if one was requested) for medical reasons. And Title VII would protect an employee who objects due to religious beliefs against undergoing vaccination.

In these cases, the employer could be required to provide accommodation for these individuals (such as working from home).

Additionally, the employer would have to enter into an interactive process with the worker to determine whether a reasonable accommodation would enable them to perform essential job functions without compromising workplace safety. This could include:

  • The use of personal protective equipment,
  • Moving their workstation to a more secluded area,
  • Temporary reassignment,
  • Working from home, or
  • Taking a leave of absence.

One issue that employment law attorneys say may not have any legal standing is if an employee objects to inoculation based on being an “anti-vaxxer,” or someone who objects to vaccines believing that they are dangerous. In this case, depending on which state your business is located, you may or may not be able to compel an anti-vaxxer to get a vaccine shot.

Protecting your firm

To mount a successful defense of a vaccination policy if sued, you would need to be able to show that the policy is job-related and consistent with business necessity. And that the rationale is based on facts, tied to each employee’s job description and that you enforce the policy consistently without prejudice or favoritism.

Also, you must ensure that any employee who requests accommodation due to their health status or religious beliefs does not suffer any adverse consequences. In other words, you cannot punish someone that is covered by the ADA or Title VII for refusing a vaccine.

Also, you will need to project and safeguard your employees’ medical information, under the law.

The takeaway

A number of employment law experts say that once a vaccine is widely available, most employers will likely have the right to require that workers get it, as long as they heed the advice above about the ADA and Title VII. Until then, you may want to consider following the 2009 guidance.

If you do implement a policy requiring vaccination, consider:

  • Fully covering vaccine costs if they are not fully covered by your employees’ health insurance.
  • Allowing employees to opt out entirely if they have medical or religious objections.
  • In the event of a medical or religious objection, you must engage in an interactive process to determine whether the individual’s objections can be accommodated.
  • Including safeguards for keeping your employees’ medical information confidential.
  • Not abandoning your other efforts to keep your workplace safe, such as the use of social distancing, regular cleaning and disinfecting, and the use of personal protective equipment.

Alert: New Law Creates COVID-19 Workers’ Comp Framework

outdoor workers

Governor Newsom has signed legislation that creates a new framework for COVID-19-related workers’ compensation claims.

SB 1159, which takes effect immediately, partly replaces an executive order that Newsom made on March 18 and which expired on July 5. That order required all employees working outside the home who contracted COVID-19 be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits.

The new law also creates a rebuttable presumption that all cases of COVID-19 among front-line workers be considered work-related for workers’ compensation purposes. Finally, the law creates a rebuttable presumption that a workers’ COVID-19 diagnosis is work-related when there was an outbreak in their workplace during the prior 14 days.

The new law is retroactive to July 6, the day after Newsom’s executive order expired, and is set to expire Jan. 1, 2023.

SB 1159’s presumption that an illness or death resulting from COVID-19 has arisen out of and in the course and scope of employment, can be disputed by the employer if they have:

  • Proof of measures they put in place to reduce the potential transmission of COVID-19 in the workplace,
  • Evidence of the employee’s non-occupational risks of contracting COVID-19,
  • Proof of statements made by the employee, or
  • Any other evidence normally used to dispute a work-related injury.

Employers with fewer than five employees are exempt under the statute.

The law also requires new reporting provisions to allow workers’ compensation claims adjusters to track cases to know when the presumption applies and requires a faster review of claims to accept or deny compensability than is typical.

SB 1159’s three parts

The first part codifies Newsom’s prior executive order that provided a rebuttable presumption of work-relatedness to all employees working outside of the home that contracted COVID-19.

The second provides a rebuttable presumption that front-line workers (like firefighters, law enforcement officers, health care workers, home care workers, and IHSS workers) who contract COVID-19, contracted it in the workplace.

The third creates a rebuttable presumption that worker’s COVID-19 diagnosis is work-related within 14 days of a company outbreak. Under SB 1159, an outbreak is defined as when four employees test positive at a specific place of employment with 100 or fewer employees and, for larger places of employment, when 4% of the employees test positive.

It’s also deemed a workplace outbreak if the employer had to shut down due to a coronavirus outbreak.

Reporting requirements

Under the new law, when an employer “knows or reasonably should know that an employee has tested positive for COVID-19,” they must report to the insurer the following information within three business days, via e-mail or fax:

  • The date the employee tested positive.
  • The address or addresses of the employee’s specific place(s) of employment during the 14-day period preceding the date of their positive test.
  • The highest number of employees who reported to work at the employee’s specific place of employment in the 45-day period preceding the last day the employee worked at each specific place of employment.

The Rossi Law Group has the following recommendations for employers in California:

  • Keep track of all locations each employee works at, the number of employees on each day at each location, as well as a log of those that test positive (including the date the specimen was collected).
  • If you are aware of any staff who have tested positive between July 6 and Sept. 17, you have 30 days after Sept. 17 to report the positive test to the administrator and include the same information as in the bullet points above.
  • You must also report to the administrator positive COVID-19 results for employees that are not filing claims. In that case, you must omit personal identifying information of the employee.
  • Provide any factual information to the administrator that could help rebut any claim of work-relatedness.

The law also has some teeth: Anyone who submits false or misleading information shall be subjected to a civil fine up to $10,000.

One last thing…

The governor also signed into law AB 685, which requires employers to report an outbreak to local public health officials. Employers must also report known cases to employees who may have been exposed to COVID-19 within one business day.

Cal/OSHA Requires Employers to Protect Workers from Wildfire Smoke

wildfire smoke

As wildfires continue raging throughout California, Cal/OSHA has issued a reminder to employers that they are required to protect their outdoor workers from smoke if the air quality index exceeds 151.

Cal/OSHA has extended an emergency regulation it put in place in August 2019 through January 2021 as it works on a permanent regulation on wildfire smoke protection for outdoor workers in California.

For the safety of your workers and to comply with the regulation, it’s important that you follow the regulations and know when you will need to take action to protect them from outdoor smoke.

The regulation applies when the Air Quality Index (AQI) for airborne Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 microns (PM2.5) or smaller is 151 or greater in an area where employees are working outdoors. Here are the details of the regulation: 

Identification – When wildfire smoke affects a worksite, employers must monitor the air quality index (AQI) for PM2.5. Employers can monitor the AQI using the following websites:

Communication – Employers must implement a system for communicating wildfire smoke hazards in a form readily understandable by all affected employees, including provisions designed to encourage employees to inform the employer of wildfire smoke hazards without fear of reprisal.

Training and instruction – Employers with outdoor workers need to provide training that covers at least:

  • The health effects of wildfire smoke.
  • The right to obtain medical treatment without fear of reprisal.
  • How employees can obtain the current Air Quality Index (AQI) for PM2.5.
  • Possible actions they must take if the AQI exceeds 150 PM 2.5

Options for protecting workers – The regulation provides three ways employers can protect their workers:

  1. Modifications – If possible, employers should implement modifications to the workplace, to reduce exposure. Examples include providing enclosed structures or vehicles for employees to work in, where the air is filtered.
  2. Changes to procedures and schedules – Another option is to change work procedures or schedules. Examples include changing the location where employees work or reducing the amount of time they work outdoors or exposed to unfiltered outdoor air.
  3. Respiratory protection – Employers also have the option to provide proper respiratory protection equipment, such as disposable respirators, for voluntary use without fit-testing.

To filter out fine particles, respirators must be labeled N-95, N-99, N-100, R-95, P-95, P-99, or P-100, and must be labeled as approved by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

If the AQI is above 300, fit-testing and a medical examination prior to use would be mandatory.

The takeaway

If you do have outside workers who are confronted with working in smoky conditions, you should start stockpiling two-week supply of N95 masks for all of your workers if you are unable to implement other controls to reduce their exposure.

Cal/OSHA is in the rule making process to make the emergency regulations permanent and has sent out public comment notices on the proposed regulation. We will continue monitoring the agency’s progress on the rules and update you when they have been completed.

New Law Adds Independent Contractor, Freelance Exemptions to AB 5

A new law has come to the rescue of a number of freelance professions by exempting them from the onerous requirements of AB 5, which required most independent contractors to be classified as employees in California.

Governor Gavin Newsom on Sept. 1 signed AB 2257 as an urgency measure, so that it took effect immediately after it passed unanimously in both houses of the state Legislature.

If you remember, AB 5 set a new standard for hiring independent contractors, requiring many to be reclassified as employees covered by minimum wage, overtime, workers’ compensation, unemployment and disability insurance. It created a three-pronged test that needs to be satisfied to determine if someone is an independent contractor or an employee.

To be independent contractors under AB 5’s “ABC test,” workers must (A) work independently, (B) do work that is different from what the business does, and (C) offer their work to other businesses or the public. All three conditions must be met.

It is prong B that’s problematic, as for example, a freelance writer working for a publication would not be doing something different than the business does. The law sets limits on the amount of income someone can receive while doing this kind of work before being considered an employee.

 

Exemptions under new law

AB 2257 preserves the ABC test for independent contractor classification but adds a number of exemptions from this test. Here are the professions now exempt from AB 5, meaning that they can be considered independent contractors and not have to be treated as employees under the law:

  • Youth sports coaches
  • Specialized performers
  • Home inspectors
  • Insurance industry field service contractors
  • Appraisers
  • Underwriting inspectors
  • Premium auditors
  • Risk management, or loss control specialists
  • Sports competition judges, umpires and referees
  • Graphic design
  • Web design
  • Tutoring
  • Consulting
  • Caddying
  • Wedding planning and event vending
  • Yard cleanup
  • Captioning, and
  • Interpreting and translating services.

AB 5 also has a freelancer exemption, which has been expanded by the new law to include:

  • Fine artists
  • Freelance writers
  • Translators
  • Editors and content contributors
  • Advisors, narrators, cartographers, producers and copy editors, and
  • Illustrators, and newspaper cartoonists working under written contracts.

AB 2257 also expands the “business-to-business” definition in AB 5 to cover a relationship between two or more sole proprietors.

COVID-19 Claims Growing Among California Workers

workers' compensation claims

The number of COVID-19 workers’ compensation claims in California has seen a steady climb, reaching a total of 31,612 from when the pandemic started until the end of July, according to the latest figures from the Division of Workers’ Compensation.

In July, 9,515 California workers filed COVID-19 workers’ compensation claims, as well as 74 coronavirus-related worker deaths ― bringing the total to 140 fatalities. The total claims account for 10% of all claims filed between January and July, despite the first claims being filed only in March.

These numbers are fluid and are certain to grow as more claims are filed after the fact, as there are often time lags in claims filings.

For example:

May claims ― As of July 6, there were 3,889 claims, but as of Aug. 10 the number had risen to 4,606.

June claims ― As of July 6, there were 4,438 COVID-19 workers’ comp claims. But as of Aug. 10, that figure for June claims had more than doubled to 10,528. 

Based on these claims development stats, the California Workers’ Compensation Institute projects there could ultimately be 29,354 COVID-19 claims with July injury dates and 56,082 COVID-19 claims with January through July injury dates.

Who is filing claims?

The top five sectors reporting COVID-19 workers’ compensation claims during the first seven months of the year are:

  • Health care workers (40% of all claims)
  • Public safety/government workers (6%)
  • Retail workers (8%)
  • Manufacturing (7%)
  • Transportation (5%).

Handling workers’ comp claims

In early May, Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order extending workers’ compensation benefits to California employees who contract COVID-19 while working outside of their homes during the state’s stay-at-home order.

To qualify for the presumption, all of the following conditions must be met:

  • The worker must test positive for or be diagnosed with COVID-19 within 14 days after a day they worked at your jobsite at your direction.
  • The day they worked at your jobsite was on or after March 19.
  • Your jobsite is not their home or residence.
  • If your worker is diagnosed with COVID-19, the diagnosis was done by a medical doctor and confirmed by a positive test for COVID-19 within 30 days of the date of the diagnosis.

Even when an employee is presumed to have become ill from COVID-19 at work, the employer may dispute that conclusion. In such a case, however, you bear the burden of proving that the injury or illness did not occur at work.

The executive order does not apply to COVID-19-related claims, regardless of date of injury, that were accepted by the claims administrator as compensable prior to May 6.

All of the typical workers’ compensation benefits apply:

Medical care ― Reasonable and necessary medical treatment paid for by your employer to help you recover from an injury or illness caused by work.

Temporary disability benefits ― Payments if you lose wages because your injury prevents you from doing your usual job while recovering.

Permanent disability benefits ― Payments if you don’t recover completely.

Supplemental job displacement benefits ― Vouchers to help pay for retraining or skill enhancement if you don’t recover completely and don’t return to work for your employer.

Death benefits – Payments to your spouse, children or other dependents if you die from a job injury or illness.

The takeaway

If you have an employee who is working on site and who tests positive for COVID-19, you should let them know about their rights to file for workers’ compensation if they miss work and/or need treatment.

The state’s insurance commissioner has approved new rules that bar insurers from using any COVID-19 claims against your experience modifier (X-Mod), so it won’t hurt your workers’ compensation experience if a worker files a claim.

Dealing with Violent Customers Who Refuse to Wear Masks

wearing a mask at work

As many states and municipalities have issued mandatory mask orders for businesses that are open to the public, operators like retailers and restaurants have been thrust into the front lines of reducing the spread of the virus by requiring customers to wear masks when on their premises.

This has led to confrontations that sometimes result in violence — and even in the deaths of some workers.

Due to the volatility of some of these confrontations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a guide for limiting workplace violence associated with COVID-19. The guidance recommends:

  • Offering customers options to minimize their contact with others and promote social distancing. These can include curbside pick-up; personal shoppers; home delivery for groceries, food and other services; and alternative shopping hours.
  • Posting signs that let customers know about policies for wearing masks, social distancing, and the maximum number of people allowed in a business facility.
  • Advertising COVID-19-related policies on your website.
  • Providing employee training on threat recognition, conflict resolution, non-violent response, and on any other relevant topics related to workplace violence response.
  • Putting in place steps to assess and respond to workplace violence. Response will depend on the severity of the violence and on the size and structure of the business. Possible responses may include reporting to a manager or supervisor on-duty, calling security or calling 911.
  • Remaining aware of and supporting employees and customers if a threatening or violent situation occurs.
  • Assigning two workers to work as a team to encourage COVID-19 prevention policies to be followed, if staffing permits.
  • Installing security systems (e.g., panic buttons, cameras, alarms) and training employees on how to use them.
  • Identifying a safe area for employees to go to if they feel they are in danger (e.g., a room that locks from the inside, has a second exit route, and has a phone or silent alarm).

Training on warning signs and response

Employee training on workplace violence typically covers definitions and types of violence, risk factors and warning signs for violence, prevention strategies, and ways to respond to threatening, potentially violent, or violent situations.

Warning signs — As part of training, employees often learn verbal and non-verbal cues that may be warning signs of possible violence. Verbal cues can include speaking loudly or swearing.

Non-verbal cues can include clenched fists, heavy breathing, a fixed stare and pacing. The more cues shown, the greater the risk of violence.

Response — During training, employees also learn how to appropriately respond to potentially violent or violent situations.

Responses range from paying attention to a person and maintaining non-threatening eye contact, to using supportive body language and avoiding threatening gestures, such as finger-pointing or crossed arms.

Consider implementing a “tap-out” system that allows an employee to make a signal for a supervisor or other employee to step in and the at-risk staff member to walk away.

Employee responsibilities guidelines

  1. Attend all employer-provided training on how to recognize, avoid and respond to potentially violent situations.
  2. Report perceived threats or acts of violence to your manager or supervisor, following any existing policies that may be in place.
  3. Remain aware of and support co-workers and customers if a threatening or violent situation occurs.
  4. Do not argue with a customer if they make threats or become violent. If needed, go to a safe area, (ideally, a room that locks from the inside, has a second exit route, and has a phone or silent alarm).
  5. Do not attempt to force anyone who appears upset or violent to follow COVID-19 prevention policies or other polices or practices related to COVID-19 (such as limits on the number of household or food products that can be bought).

Courts Rule COVID-19 Business Interruption Claims Invalid

business interruption

As second court has ruled that an insurer does not have to pay business interruption claims by businesses that saw their revenues run dry due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which will further make it difficult for business to successfully file such claims.

In the most recent case, a Superior Court judge in the District of Colombia in August ruled that an insurer is not obligated to pay business interruption claims of the owner of several restaurants after the mayor ordered all restaurants to close in response to the coronavirus. The judge ruled that in order for the business interruption claims to be valid there must have been physical loss or damage and that the plaintiffs failed to prove any they suffered any such losses.

The ruling comes on the heels of a Michigan state court decision in July that also sided with Michigan Insurance Company in a case brought by the owner of two restaurants whose $650,000 business interruption claim the insurer had denied.

These two cases are closely following the wording of typical business property policies that also include business interruption coverage caused by physical damage.

In the D.C. case, there were several plaintiffs: Lead plaintiff Rose 1 LLC, which is owned by chef Aaron Silverman, and which operates a number of upscale restaurants including Rose’s Luxury, Elaine’s One, Pineapple and Pearl’s and Little Pearl. Other plaintiffs included Buttercream Bakeshop, Karma Modern Indian, El Cucho, Bar Charley, La Vie and Beuchert’s Saloon.

Mayor Muriel Bowser had issued orders on banning indoor dining, for residents to shelter at home and for all non-essential businesses to close. The restaurants filed claims on their commercial property policy with Eire Insurance Company, which included coverage for loss of income and/or rental income from a partial or total interruption of business that results directly from loss or damage to the insured property.

The restaurants after the claim was rejected, arguing that the loss of use of their restaurants was a direct physical loss because the closures were the direct result of the mayor’s orders.

The plaintiffs argued that the losses were physical because the coronavirus is “material” and “tangible.” But, the judge pointed out that the plaintiffs failed to show that the virus was present in their properties and that the mayor’s orders did not materially or tangibly affect the restaurants.

Business interruption cover

Business law attorneys say business around the country have filed hundreds of coronavirus-related business interruption lawsuits after seeing their claims rejected. The issue mainly comes down to policy wording.

Most business property policies also cover business interruption claims, but policies usually specify that there must be physical damage to property. The policies are typically tapped to losses resulting from damage to a business caused by a natural catastrophe. Additionally, most business interruption portions of policies explicitly exclude pandemic.

Most policies require there to be some type of direct physical loss or damage to either your premises or some part of your supply chain in order to trigger business interruption coverage. Without that trigger, insurers would likely argue that a virus in your facility is not physical loss or damage.

But these are early days in the litigation front as more cases are decided and appealed, we should have a clearer picture of COVID-19 business interruption coverage.

More Employers Ask Workers to Sign COVID-19 Waivers, but They May Not Be Legal

sign waiver

As lawsuits against employers continue rising amid the coronavirus pandemic, some businesses are requiring workers to sign waivers absolving them of liability and responsibility should they contract the virus.

Eight percent of executives surveyed by law firm Blank Rome said they would require that their workers sign waivers of liability before returning to the workplace.

While employers are trying to protect themselves from a liability that didn’t even exist a year ago, some human resources legal experts have expressed concerns that they may not be necessary ― and may be unenforceable.

The moves come as employers are wrestling with numerous risks that the pandemic has wrought, and with the U.S. Senate having proposed legislation that would limit the liability of employers for workers who become sick during the pandemic. A number of states have also enacted laws or emergency regulations that make it harder for employees to sue employers for negligence over COVID-19.

COVID-19-spurred employee lawsuits have mostly centered on employers not providing the proper protections for workers, discrimination or for being laid off for refusing to come to work.

Legal experts caution that employers cannot require workers to waive rights they may have, such as access to workers’ compensation benefits or the right to file a complaint with OSHA.

They also say that some employers may consider waivers as a green light to not take precautions against COVID-19, but in such cases the waivers would likely not be legal.

If a worker claims they caught COVID-19 at work and the facts back that up, they would likely have access to workers’ compensation benefits (some states even require it). But if the employer was negligent, the employee could have further legal avenues to pursue besides workers’ compensation, rights that cannot legally be waived, lawyers say.

So even if an employee were to sign a document waiving their right to file a complaint if they feel their employer is being negligent, they may still have recourse.

Requiring workers to sign waivers could present a number of legal issues, according to the law website <i>nolo.com</i>, including:

  • Courts in some states are reluctant to enforce liability waivers in the workplace because of the superior bargaining power of employers over their staff.
  • Workplace morale could suffer if your employees think you are placing your own economic interests above workplace safety.
  • Any waiver employees sign would not protect your firm from lawsuits filed by their families should they contract COVID-19 if staff are infected at work.
  • A waiver might be unnecessary in states that have passed laws granting immunity to employers for claims made by workers infected with the virus.

Another option

While employees who refuse to sign a waiver of their company’s liability may have grounds to challenge their employer, some liability lawyers say that employers instead of a waiver can ask their staff to sign a social contract that requires:

  • The employer to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and take all necessary precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at work, and
  • The workers to comply with their employer’s requirements on mandates on wearing masks, social distancing and not coming to work if they have symptoms or of they think they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

This type of agreement won’t protect an employer from a lawsuit, but it does spell out that they are following authorities’ recommendation for protecting employees.

While employees who refuse to sign a waiver of their company’s liability could have grounds to sue, those who sign this type of acknowledgement of new workplace rules and government guidance are less likely to be successful if they are fired for not signing. This is because the acknowledgement is not forcing them to give up any of their rights and is rather for their and their co-workers’ protection.

These social contracts also would provide workers with a list of their responsibilities when working during the COVID-19 pandemic, and outline what their employer is doing to protect them.