COVID-19 Update: How We Are Serving and Protecting Our Clients

Articles Posted in COVID19

As an Amazon warehouse worker, there are certain risks that come with the job. One thing that you, as an Amazon worker, should not have to accept as “just part of the job” is being placed at an unreasonable risk of exposure to coronavirus. If there is any slight degree of good news, it is that, if you’re placed in that kind of situation, the law may provide you with a remedy though civil action. If that sounds like your workplace circumstances, be sure to act without delay by contacting an experienced Chicago workplace injury attorney.

Reports have come in from Amazon warehouses around the county about workers at risk, and even some who have died. D.G. was an Amazon warehouse worker in Sacramento who had been injured at work. D.G.’s doctor’s orders following the injury stated he was required to remain seated at work at all times. Rather than allow D.G. to remain home during the height of the pandemic and governmental stay-at-home orders, Amazon continued to require D.G. to be present at the warehouse, according to a CNet report.

While at work, he asserted that he had his employer’s blessing to use the internet on his phone, text his wife and chat with other employees stationed nearby. He said he was given no work to do and received no supervision, but he was required to be at the Amazon warehouse’s breakroom 10 hours a day, every day. According to the report, his employer instructed to “sit there watching Netflix if I wanted to,” as long as he was sitting in that room.

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We have heard stories from our clients and other attorneys about the difficulties that working men and women are having balancing their desire to be safe during the Covid-19 pandemic while earning a living or giving their children an education. We have heard about factories where there have been many positive tests. Sometimes were hear about all the steps management has taken to try to reduce the spread of the disease and sometimes we hear about management that is only focused on production and doesn’t really seem to care about the safety of their employees.

We have also heard about workers who have no choice but to face an increased risk of getting Covid-19. These are the first responders, police, and fire and healthcare workers. There are delivery drivers. There are grocery store workers and restaurant staff. There are teachers who are caught between the competing legitimate desires to remain safe and yet complete the mission of educating our children.

We have slowly started returning to some union halls to meet our clients. Those locals are very protective and make sure that there are a limited number of people in the building, that everybody practices social distancing, that there is plenty of hand sanitizer around and that everybody is wearing a mask. We had a number of paper masks with our firm’s name and number on it that we bring with us when we travel to these union halls. If somebody needs a mask, we have one for them.

The return of students to school every fall is supposed to be an exciting time, replete with the promises of new opportunities for learning and growth. However, in the midst of the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic, many teachers are preparing more than just their lesson plans as they return to the classroom this year – many are preparing their wills. As one teacher said, “I never would have thought when I become a teacher, I would need to get a will in place in order to go back to work.”

Unfortunately, the approach to school safety has been far from uniform – individual school districts themselves are largely responsible for determining whether and how they will open, and in what capacity. This can create fairly drastic variations from district to district, and some districts have had multiple iterations of re-opening plans or completely reversed course from in-person to remote learning. Some school districts have still pressed forward with in-person education despite explosions of COVID cases. For example, a photo from a Georgia high school recently went viral, showing a crowded hallway filled with teens not wearing masks. Predictably, the school reached over 35 positive cases, but the district is not completely abandoning in-person instruction.

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An elementary school teacher, Frederique Boisyvon, wears a face mask to protect against coronavirus, in a school, in western France. (photo courtesy of Associated Press)

Workers across Chicagoland and all of Illinois have always faced the challenge of dealing with workplaces that may provide inadequate safety protections. Today, though, workers face a new challenge: employers that fail to provide them with the level of protection against novel coronavirus that the law says those workers are entitled to receive. If your employer isn’t following the prescribed guidance and is placing you at risk, the legal system here in Illinois may offer an opportunity to recover much-needed relief, so be sure to reach out to an experienced Chicago workplace injury attorney right away.

One recent case that offers some important good news comes from right here in Cook County, Risk and Insurance reported. The workers who brought that lawsuit were a group of fast-food employees who worked for McDonald’s. According to the workers, their employer required them to work in close proximity to potentially infected coworkers, contrary to the six-foot social distancing space recommended by the CDC. Additionally, the workers alleged that mask-wearing protocols were not being followed at their workplaces.

Already, the workers have cleared two important hurdles, according to the report. First, the workers defeated the employer’s request for summary judgment in its favor that would have thrown out the lawsuit. The judge stated that, “even if a remedy could be found in administrative bodies,” that doesn’t mean that the workers could not pursue, and potentially win, their case.

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If you or a loved one has a medical condition that will prevent you from working for at least 12 consecutive months, you may be eligible to receive Social Security Disability (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. If so, you must file an Application with Social Security to begin this process. If you are already a recipient of either SSDI or SSI benefits, your payments, whether by direct deposit or mail will continue. Due to the Corona Virus, all local Social Security offices have been closed to the public since March 17, 2020. This protects Social Security’s employees as well as the population served by Social Security (mostly older individuals and people with underlying medical conditions). While you are no longer able to have in-person interviews to start this process you may apply for benefits on line (Social Security’s preferred method) (ssa.gov/onlineservices/) or you may call your local office. Use Social Security’s Field Office Locator (secure.ssa.gov/ICON/main.jsp) and look under additional information. Before you call, check out Social Security’s most frequently asked questions. If you already had an appointment scheduled with your local office, an employee will attempt to contact you at your originally scheduled appointment time. If you choose to file online we realize that it might be difficult to navigate Social Security’s online system. The experienced attorneys and staff at Katz, Friedman, Eisenstein, Johnson, Bareck & Bertuca can help you navigate this and answer your questions.

If you have already filed an Application for Benefits, Social Security will still issue a written decision and mail it to you. If you are denied you may appeal this decision online. There are certain deadlines for doing so that are indicated in the decision. If you do not file your appeal timely, you will have to start the process over again.

Not only have the Field Offices been closed but DDS (Disability Determination Services) is working on only a limited basis and Social Security has suspended all in-person hearings. Administrative Law Judges are now conducting hearings by telephone. Any previously scheduled hearing will now be conducted by telephone for the foreseeable future. Claimants may agree to have telephonic hearings or they may choose to wait until they can have an in-person hearing. Social Security will contact you to find out which you prefer. Telephone hearings are not mandatory. If you ask that your hearing be postponed you will be sent a notice advising you of the new date, time and location of your hearing. While finally having a (phone) hearing after waiting for so long might seem like a good thing, there may be reasons on a case by case basis to delay such hearings. For instance, it is difficult to judge a Claimant’s credibility over the phone. Also, will a judge likely be as empathetic if he/she cannot actually observe the Claimant throughout the hearing? These are difficult decisions to make. The attorneys at Katz, Friedman can aide you in deciding which option might be best in your situation.

Unfortunately, given the current health crisis due to Covid-19/Coronavirus, many companies and employers are facing financial difficulties. Injured workers are understandably concerned about what will happen to their claims if their employers go out of business. Don’t panic, but best to get help. The good news is that a workers’ compensation claim typically survives whether the employer is actively operating its business or not.

The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act requires that employers carry workers’ compensation insurance unless it is allowed to self-insure. Most small and midsized employers, and many large employers, do carry workers’ compensation insurance. When an insured employer goes out of business, the insurance carrier typically remains liable for coverage of the workers’ compensation claim. The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act permits us to file the claim directly against the Insurance Company in these situations. There may be delays in benefits, court hearings and settlements due to bankruptcy court “stay” orders on all litigation. However, many injured workers’ claims can be kept on course under most circumstances, with the insurance company paying for medical treatment and disability benefits.

If the workers’ compensation insurance company were to go out of business, then the claim typically would be handled by the Illinois Guarantee Fund. When this happens, the claim would still be active, but would be paid by the Illinois Guarantee Fund instead of the original insurance company. This is not a desirable situation as the Illinois Guarantee Fund is not always fully funding the settlement claims.

The recent nationwide surge in COVID-19 (Coronavirus) is a disturbing reminder that our nation’s public health crisis is far from over.  Despite a push to re-open, many states are now reversing course and locking back down in an effort to further curb a spread that is growing wildly out of control.  Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House advisor on Coronavirus, testified before Congress that daily infections could increase to 100,000 unless states take further action to get the surge of cases under control.[i]

Illinois has thus far managed to keep Coronavirus infections under control, and has dropped to sixth in the US for total number of COVID cases.[ii]  Some nursing homes are even beginning to allow visitors – such as Hillcrest Nursing Center in Round Lake, or Citadel of Wilmette.  The Illinois Department of Public Health has even created a website that allows individuals to track county-level COVID-19 data.[iii]  Fortunately, most counties and communities across the state – from Chicago, to East St. Louis, to Peoria, to Springfield are seeing stable COVID-19 metrics.

However, this does not mean that Illinoisans are entirely in the clear.  “As more aspects of the economy open and more person to person interactions take place, there are many more opportunities for the spread of COVID-19.  The virus hasn’t gone away,” said Governor J.B. Pritzker.[iv]  There will be greater opportunity for the virus to spread as the state continues to reopen.  This also means that workers in many front-line sectors of the economy – such as nurses, doctors, other healthcare workers, and restaurant workers – will continue to be at high risk for getting sick at work from COVID.

Chicago issued an emergency travel order which began at 12:01 a.m. Monday and will remain in effect until further notice.[i]  This means that anyone who has contact with one of fifteen states (listed in the travel order) and enters into Chicago will need to quarantine for 14 days.  This applies to those individuals visiting Chicago or returning to Chicago from visiting those states.

States included in the order are: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah.

The rationale for this emergency travel order is that these States are seeing significant increases in COVID-19 cases and infection rates.  Some of these states are reporting record numbers.  What this means for Chicago-area workers that revolve around or relate to those types of industries that deal with interstate travel is that they now might have a higher probability of contracting COVID-19 then they were weeks or months ago.

We have been fighting  for real clients with real injuries against real employers or real insurance companies. The legal system  is still only partially open with  very few cases being set for trial. Most  justice is virtual and this is  causing real difficulties for our clients.

In the past three months this  lawyer has taken two depositions via Zoom.  Doctors were cross examined on  the computer.  This lawyer  has covered the Rockford status call for  the firm’s cases. This lawyer has had four pretrials where the arbitrator discussed the case with the lawyers and attempted to get the employer to offer more and get us to take less in  an effort to have the parties reach a compromise and avoid trial. These pre trials were done though Webex,  which, like Zoom, allows  parties to see each other and  talk  with each  other even though they are  not  in  the same room. This lawyer has also had four Social Security Disability hearings.  These  were held by telephone as there have been no in person hearings  since  early March.

These virtual hearings are not  perfect but they are much  better than  doing nothing. Any way we can  move our clients cases forward is good.

Many states, including Illinois, are gradually beginning to ease their COVID-19 restrictions.  Chicago is now allowing bars and breweries to open for outdoor service only.  Nevertheless, the existential threat that COVID-19 presents is far from over, and scores of people continue to lose their lives to Coronavirus.  This has been particularly acute amongst residents in long-term care facilities.

According to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health, there were a total of 20,550 cases and 3,433 deaths in long-term care facilities throughout Illinois as of June 12.[i]  These cases and deaths, while concentrated in Chicago and Cook County, are dispersed throughout the state, affecting communities like Peoria, East St. Louis, and Springfield.  As of June 13, the Four Fountains facility in St. Clair County had 104 cases and Edwardsville Care Center in Madison County had 94 cases.[ii]  Chicago’s collar counties likewise continue to bear the brunt of the onslaught, with Lake, DuPage, Kane, and Will counties having a concentration of cases.[iii]  According to earlier data from the Illinois Department of Public Health, nursing homes account for approximately 52% of all Coronavirus deaths in the state.[iv]

In recognition of these appalling statistics, a union representing nursing home workers recently organized a candlelight vigil outside the Thompson Center in Chicago, honoring the nursing home victims of COVID-19.[v]  A union news release highlighted the need for holding nursing home owners and administrators accountable for their actions, saying “The appalling levels and scope of fatalities and illnesses among nursing home residents and workers continue to fuel demands for accountability on the Illinois nursing home industry as questions continue to rise about what dramatic steps the industry is taking to mitigate the pandemic and protect residents and staff.”[vi]

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