By TARYN LUNASTAFF WRITER
MAY 6, 2020
SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order Wednesday that will make it easier for essential workers who contract COVID-19 to obtain workers’ compensations benefits in a win for labor unions that called for the change.
The order streamlines workers’ compensation claims and establishes a rebuttable presumption that any essential workers infected with COVID-19 contracted the virus on the job, Newsom said. In effect, the change shifts the burden of proof that typically falls on workers and instead requires companies or insurers to prove that the employees didn’t get sick at work.
“This workers’ comp presumption is so important, because we want people to feel confident, comfortable, they’ll have their benefits,” Newsom said. “The whole idea is, as we move into this second phase, we want to keep workers healthy and keep them safe.”
Newsom announced a four-phase plan last week to gradually transition back to normal. The second phase begins Friday with the reopening of some retail businesses for curbside pickup.
The California Federation of Labor, which asked for the workers’ compensation change in a March 27 letter to the governor and legislative leaders, applauded the governor’s decision on Wednesday.
“Gov. Newsom’s order today adds a vital layer of protection to essential workers putting their lives at risk to provide for our families during this pandemic,” Art Pulaski, the federation’s executive secretary-treasurer, said in a statement. “We commend the governor for taking action to ensure workers on the front lines of this crisis are able to access healthcare and other benefits from workers’ compensation without costly delays that could acutely endanger their health and safety.”
In the absence of changes, workers’ compensation claims stemming from COVID-19 could be difficult to prove, considering how easily the virus spreads.
Dozens of business groups, led by the California Chamber of Commerce, pushed back last month on the labor federation’s request for a revision to the rules and other changes. In an April 7 letter, employers said the changes would force businesses to be the “safety net to mitigate the unprecedented outcomes of this natural disaster and the government’s response.”
The chamber said Wednesday that federal relief funds are already available under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program for employees with symptoms who cannot work.
“The executive order issued today will unnecessarily and significantly drive up costs for California employers through increased workers’ compensation insurance rates at a time when they are struggling to keep Californians employed,” the chamber said in a statement.
John Kabateck, California director of the National Federation of Independent Business, expressed similar concerns Monday
“Our policymakers need to make sure they are doing the math so these regulations, rules and costs don’t have the opposite effect of drying up jobs,” said Kabateck, whose organization represents 15,000 small business owners in the state. “There’s not a tree in a small business owner’s backyard where they can pluck the Benjamins.”
Rob Lapsley, head of the California Business Roundtable, said the business community had expressed their opposition to the potential changes for the last five weeks.
“With today’s executive order, Gov. Newsom has bypassed the Legislature and increased costs on employers precisely at the same time businesses are trying to rehire employees to restart the economy,” Lapsley said in a statement.
Some of California’s largest workers’ compensation insurers have already removed requirements that essential workers with COVID-19 prove they contracted the virus on the job.
Under the existing workers’ compensation system, workers who are injured on the job can qualify for medical care paid for by an employer, temporary disability benefits, permanent disability benefits, supplemental job displacement benefits and death benefits.
California employers are required to provide workers’ compensation, either through an outside insurance policy or self-insurance.
Newsom’s change covers claims filed for 60 days from Wednesday’s announcement and is retroactive to claims filed as early as March 19.
The new rules apply to workers who tested positive for COVID-19 within 14 days of performing work, or those who received a diagnosis within 14 days that was confirmed by a positive test no more than 30 days later. Employers have 30 days to rebut a claim.