It seems ingrained in our national character to shower our heroes with praise and platitudes when we need them most, then leave them hanging when we don’t.

We celebrate those who serve in the military, yet can’t remain enthusiastic about funding veterans’ hospitals. We venerate first responders, but balk at honoring their pension agreements.

Now we are watching the first wave of our newest “essential workers” — who have kept our homes safe, our families fed, our health restored and our economy limping gamely through the COVID-19 pandemic— seek compensation for their exposure to infection and the resulting loss of health and livelihoods.

And we try to argue that this is not what Florida’s workers compensation program was designed to do.

Maybe it isn’t. But does that mean these hardest-hit workers deserve no restitution at all?

More than 43% of the claims related to COVID-19 and filed mostly by health care professionals and first responders have been denied so far, according to the state. Nearly two-thirds of these unpaid indemnity cases have involved private insurers. The total number of Florida employees who were refused compensation came to nearly 5,200 as of July 31. That is sure to increase.

No sooner had the nationwide coronavirus pandemic taken shape, with its consequent shutdowns and improvisations, than industry analysts began to wonder how this new disease would affect the workers comp landscape. The math involved in this category of insurance is straightforward: Employers pool their risk for employee illness or injury sustained on the job, and pay for the claims that result. If you get in an accident while you’re driving to the store for bread, your health care insurance must cover your medical care; but if it happens while you’re on a sales call or business trip, you are likely eligible for workers comp.

But introduce the novel coronavirus, and suddenly the calculus is more advanced. How can essential workers prove they contracted the disease on the job? How is it possible to gauge the extent of an illness about which so little is known? And how does workers comp case law apply in this never-before-experienced predicament?

Regardless of these questions, it is important not to lose sight of the fundamental moral principle involved: If a person is required by an employer to perform a job that exposes that worker to illness or injury, he or she is entitled to compensation for the consequences.

It is worth noting that, for now, affordability does not seem to be the primary barrier to making good on that contract. According to early reports from national insurance date providers, while workers comp claims for COVID-19 illness have skyrocketed in recent months, other types of indemnity claims — for more everyday job-related injuries — have plummeted during the pandemic.

“Nothing in the limited data available up to now points to any reason to expect disaster,” an August article in the insurance trade magazine Claims Journal cautiously notes.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear that this new situation requires new laws to govern the fair payment of workers comp claims that will continue to arise — perhaps for years, in the case of some COVID-19 patients.

After waving goodbye to the Florida Legislature this spring, Gov. Ron DeSantis has been practically flying solo through the pandemic, ignoring pleas from Democratic lawmakers to convene a special session. There have been many compelling reasons to do so, not least among them the $4.6 billions in federal CARES Act pandemic relief that Floridians’ elected representatives should have had a say in distributing.

And now, with Florida’s employers and their insurers pressing for a workers comp solution that only the Legislature can craft, DeSantis has a bipartisan reason to do what he should have done months ago.

Call those lawmakers back to Tallahassee.

— Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Recommended for you