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

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This discussion is a continuation of our firm’s information regarding your rights for COVID related injuries. Please view Part 1 on the firm’s YouTube Channel at: https://youtu.be/dO7G6MBxNR4 for Richard Johnson’s discussion of COVID injuries being covered under The Illinois Occupational Disease Act and Illinois Workers’ Compensation Law.

As our nation is seeing a rapid rate of COVID vaccinations being administered, unfortunately some individuals will have adverse reactions that result in serious injury or death. In Illinois, it is well established that adverse reactions as a consequence of employer required vaccinations may be compensable and entitle the injured worker to workers’ compensation benefits.

Legal authority for this type of injury is set out in Section 11 of The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act. The Statute provides as follows:

As the long-awaited COVID-19 vaccinations become increasingly available to the general public, many employees and unions may be questioning whether it is legal for employers to force their employees to receive vaccinations as a condition of employment. Interestingly enough, Katz, Friedman’s Senior Labor Partner, Stanley Eisenstein, was recently asked that very question in an appearance on Channel 7, ABC Chicago’s local news affiliate.

The short answer to the question is, “Yes.” Generally speaking, employers in the United States can require employees to receive vaccinations as a condition of continued employment. However, there may be some exceptions. For instance, if you are part of a union covered by a collective bargaining agreement, then your employer may have a duty to bargain with the union over any mandatory vaccination policies and procedures. There may also be exceptions or limitations on an employer’s ability to mandate vaccinations under certain federal employment statutes if, for instance, an employee requests an exemption based upon a disability or a sincerely held religious belief.

General Right of Employers to Require Vaccinations for At-Will Employees

In early 2021, United Continental Holdings (commonly known as UAL) began offering its flight attendants a Voluntary Separation Leave package with additional benefits to encourage voluntary separation from the company. As a term of the separation agreement, the flight attendant must waive his or her right to pursue legal claims and release United from liability related to his or her employment with and/or separation from United. Flight attendants are understandably concerned that this may affect their right to file a workers’ compensation claim and collect benefits for work related injuries.

This agreement does carve out some exceptions, including the right of the flight attendant to claim workers’ compensation benefits. This means that accepting the VSL does not forfeit your right in a workers’ compensation claim! Remember that you have three years from the date of the accident or two years from the last payment of compensation to file any Illinois workers’ compensation claim. You may file the workers’ compensation claim even after accepting the VSL.

However, flight attendants considering accepting this agreement should note that by signing the VLS agreement, the flight attendant is certifying that he or she had “no unreported on-the-job injuries”. By signing this agreement, the flight attendant who suffered unreported injuries or Occupational disease exposures in the past may jeopardize his or her right to obtain workers’ compensation benefits in the future. Accordingly, if a flight attendant has an unfiled workers’ compensation claim, it will typically be in his or her best interest to report the injury and file the claim with the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission (not just Sedgwick) prior to signing the VSL agreement to protect his or her right to workers’ compensation benefits. However, every case is different and this blog is not intended to provide legal advice, simply guidance and things to consider.

As the world continues to slog through the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic, it is impossible to escape the phrase “essential worker.” We hear the phrase peppered into news reports and conversations so frequently that it has become a received truth – that is, something we largely accept without stopping and thinking critically about its meaning. But what precisely does “essential worker” mean, and to whom does it apply?

A Google search for “essential worker” retrieves results in the millions, so there is no quick and easy way to definitively navigate the boggy question of who an essential worker is. Fortunately for Illinoisans, Governor J.B. Pritzker’s Executive Order 2020-10, issued in March 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, helps provide some clarity. Section 12 of the Executive Order defines “Essential Businesses and Operations” as healthcare and public health operations, human services operations, essential government functions, essential infrastructure, and a swathe of other businesses, including – but not limited to – grocery stores, pharmacies, food and beverage production, animal shelters, charities and social services, newspapers, radio stations, gas stations, financial institutions, hardware stores, building and construction trades, mail and delivery services, laundry services, restaurants, transportation, day cares, residential facilities, and a litany of other entities – the full list is available here.

Defining what an essential worker is more than just an academic exercise – it has real-life consequences for those workers and their families. This is most especially evident with the advent of the “COVID presumption” the General Assembly added to the Illinois Occupational Diseases Act last year and updated last week. This creates a rebuttable presumption that those essential workers covered in the Executive Order who contract COVID-19 did so in the workplace – provided that their work requires them to encounter members of the general public or to work in locations of more than 15 employees 1. For fuller context, in 2020 Governor Pritzker signed into law HB2455, which created this rebuttable presumption; however, this presumption was only applicable to cases in which a diagnosis of COVID-19 was made on or after March 9, 2020 and on or before December 31, 20202. On January 13, 2021, the Illinois General Assembly passed HB4276, which extends this “COVID presumption” to diagnoses through June 30, 2021.

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.

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.

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.

United Continental Holdings (commonly known as UAL) is offering its flight attendants a second voluntary separation program with additional benefits to encourage voluntary separation from the company. As a term of the separation agreement, the flight attendant must waive his or her right to pursue legal claims and release United from liability related to his or her employment with and/or separation from United. Flight attendants are understandably concerned that this may affect their right to file a workers’ compensation claim and collect benefits for work related injuries.

This agreement does carve out some exceptions, including the right of the flight attendant to assert his or her rights under workers’ compensation. Accepting the VSP 2 does not forfeit your workers’ compensation claim! Remember that you have three years from the date of the accident or two years from the last payment of compensation to file any Illinois workers’ compensation claim. You may file the workers’ compensation claim after accepting the VSP 2. However, any flight attendants with currently open workers’ compensation claims should note that accepting this voluntary separation package could still affect his or her claim. For example, electing to accept the voluntary separation could affect the injured workers’ right to weekly temporary total disability benefits in some situations. Further, in some cases, accepting the voluntary separation may adversely affect the amount of permanency benefits (money owed for settlement for disability caused by the injury) which the flight attendant is entitled to receive at the conclusion of medical care or upon reaching maximum medical improvement. We highly recommend that any flight attendants with currently open workers’ compensation claims consult their workers’ compensation attorney before signing this agreement to ensure a complete understanding of the potential ramifications on their workers’ compensation claim, as well as to maximize the value of the workers’ compensation claim.

Further, by signing this agreement, the flight attendant is certifying that he or she had “no unreported on-the-job injuries”. After signing the VSP 2 agreement, the flight attendant who suffered unreported injuries or Occupational disease exposures in the past may jeopardize his or her right to obtain workers’ compensation benefits in the future. Accordingly, if a flight attendant has an un-filed workers’ compensation claim, it will typically be in his or her best interest to report the injury and file the claim with the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission (not just Sedgwick) prior to signing the voluntary separation agreement to protect his or her right to workers’ compensation benefits. However, every case is different and this blog is not intended to provide legal advice, simply some guidance and food for thought.

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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