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

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Corrections officers protect us everyday by maintaining order in the jails and prisons across Illinois. They keep some of the most violent and dangerous criminals from harming the public. While various physical injuries have been a common duty related risk for Corrections Officers keeping offenders from harming themselves, other inmates, and law enforcement personnel, the growing number of Corrections Officers sick on the job from Covid-19 poses an even greater risk of harm to this crucial part of our workforce. Illinois prisons and larger County Jails, including Cook County, Dupage County, Lake County, Will County, Kane County, McHenry County, Winnebago County, LaSalle County, Peoria County, Tazewell County, McLean County, Champaign County, and Sangamon County are dealing with the threat of COVID-19 exposure. Cook County Jail has been identified as a top U.S. Hot Spot for the coronavirus, according to data compiled by The New York Times. (Source) Corrections Officers are becoming severely sick from COVID-19, many have died, and unfortunately many will continue to die over the course of this year.

Illinois Workers’ Compensation Law provides that employers are responsible to pay the same benefits for a Corrections Officer’s work injury as well as when a Corrections Officer contracts the novel corona virus. These benefits include weekly workers’ compensation pay when disabled from work, payment of medical expenses, and settlements for permanent partial disability. Some employers and their insurance companies will attempt to deny Corrections Officers’ COVID-19 claims contending that Coronavirus exposures are common to the general public. Clearly, many Corrections Officers will be exposed to COVID-19 to a greater extent than the general public if the virus is infecting the jail population. For instance, as the virus grows at a rapid rate among many Chicago-area jails, the increase in the number of exposed Corrections Officers and Sheriff’s Deputies is substantially certain. Similar rates of infection are also being seen among police officers and Sheriff officers. It is clear that this risk is higher than the general public and much higher than most professions outside of health care. Fortunately for those injured by falling ill from their job duties, the Workers’ Compensation laws in Illinois cover conditions made worse by a work injury. Just like with pre-existing conditions in health care coverage, it is expected that insurance companies and their lawyers will claim that a person’s condition was not worsened by Covid despite the evidence to the contrary. If it weren’t for these types of underhanded tactics, many injured people wouldn’t need to hire experienced workers compensation attorneys around Chicago and across Illinois. Some Corrections Officers will have mild symptoms from the Coronavirus, but others may have serious and permanent COVID-19 injuries including lung, kidney, liver, and heart damage. The permanent problems experienced with damage to vital organs not only diminishes the quality of life and life expectancy itself, but this type of organ damage will impact a person’s ability to carry out their jobs and provide for their families. What’s more, Covid will cause an aggravation of of conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and asthma, which can cause other long-term, detrimental health problems and even death years after this pandemic ends.

Governor J.B. Pritzker has called upon the IL Workers’ Compensation Commission to address the concerns for legal protection for essential workers. On April 13, 2020, the IL Workers’ Compensation Commission filed an Emergency Rule to deal with evidentiary issues in cases involving essential workers infected with COVID-19. (Click here for more information) . What this rule means is that Corrections Officers along with all members of Illinois law enforcement, who are considered essential workers like nurses and doctors, will have a somewhat easier time of proving that they contracted the Coronavirus as a consequence of an exposure to the virus in the work place. This rebuttable presumption means that it is presumed that a Corrections Officer with a positive Covid test was hurt at work and it puts pressure on the employer to prove that the illness was caused somewhere else. This presumption helps workers’ compensation attorneys like us prove your claim for benefits under the IL Workers’ Compensation Act was the result of prison or jail exposure to the virus and not simply a disease that is common to the general public. It is expected that many Covid work injury cases will be fought intensely by defense attorneys whose primary interest is saving the employer as much money as possible. Our job as the injured worker’s attorney is to maximize all benefits provided by the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act. We are on your side.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to strain hospitals and stretch already thin staffing resources, Governor Pritzker has asked retired healthcare workers to aid in the fight against the Coronavirus. “We’re in the middle of a battle, and we need reinforcements,” Pritzker stated during a press conference. (source)

Among those answering this call are respiratory therapists. (source) Along with nurses, doctors, and other medical personnel, respiratory therapists are on the front line of this pandemic. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, chief among the responsibilities of respiratory therapists are performing diagnostic tests – such as measuring lung capacity – administering chest physiotherapy, nebulizer treatments, and aerosolized medications, performing intubations and connecting patients to ventilators.(source) In the words of one doctor, respiratory therapists “serve as the glue that brings everything together when doctors manage patients with respiratory illnesses.”(source) This expertise makes respiratory care practitioners especially essential during this current crisis because they are operating the ventilators that are keeping Coronavirus patients alive. Operating ventilators is an intensive process, requiring significant time in the proximity of critically ill patients, creating a higher risk of exposure.

For those retired therapists returning to the work force in the midst of this pandemic, it can be a particularly worrisome time. Many of those answering the call and returning to the front line after years of retirement may be at a higher risk because they may fall into one or more high risk categories. (source) Additionally, while the public has become well aware of the critical need for ventilators, many may not understand the intubation process required to connect a patient to one. This process involves exceptionally close contact with an ill patient, including lifting the patient’s chin or jaw to open their airway, using a laryngoscope to view a patient’s airway, inserting an endotracheal tube into their trachea, and taping the tube to their face. Such close contact can expose respiratory therapists and other medical personnel involved to patient’s airways, aerosolized droplets, condensate from tubing, and other risks associated with tending to critically ill patients.

We have rallied around our first responders who are protecting us against Covid-19 and who maintain order and protect our homes and lives. Many houses have homemade signs in their windows expressing solidarity with police, fire and healthcare workers. We join in that sentiment and are aware of the risks those workers take every day. However, they are not the only ones who are continuing to work and continuing to put their lives at risk.

There is a wide range of “essential workers” who continue to provide service, continue to risk their lives by making contact with other humans as we attempt to live normal lives in the wake of the pandemic. The Governor has designated the following workers as essential:

  •  Healthcare and Public Health Operations (includes businesses in the supply chain)

When Governor Pritzker ordered the public to shelter at home to “flatten the curve” of rising infections from the Covid 19 virus, he also exempted a number of workers from this order, deeming these workers essential to the machinery of fighting the disease and required to keep others fed, clothed, protected and safe. These essential workers are out in the work place every day. Each and every one of us have seen these workers in action, whether witnessing the heroism of our nurses, physicians and medical personnel or the bravery of delivery workers, food and grocery store workers as well as trade workers. There has been a great deal of concern for the health and well being of each and every one of these brave souls. Clearly, these are the very workers at greatest risk of contracting the Covid 19 virus. Governor J.B. Pritzker has called upon the Workers’ Compensation Commission to address the concerns of the union officials who represent these workers that the Rules for receiving workers’ compensation benefits be relaxed to enable these front line workers to recover workers’ compensation temporary total disability, medical benefits and benefits for permanent partial disability or death. On April 13, 2020, the Workers’ Compensation Commission filed an Emergency Rule to deal with these concerns. See: https://wcla.info/resources/Documents/COVID-19%20Page/Notice_of_Emergency_Amendments–2020-04-13.pdf.

What this rule means is that first responders and essential workers will have a somewhat easier time of proving that they contracted the coronavirus as a consequence of an exposure to the virus in the work place. This is a rebuttable presumption, but this presumption goes a long way to helping us prove your claim for benefits under the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act was the result of the workplace exposure to the virus and not simply a disease which is common to the general public. A rebuttable presumption is not a guarantee your case is a winner, the burden of proof can easily be defeated and force the worker bringing the claim to undertake litigation to prove all the elements of any claim under the Workers’ Compensation Act. Rest assured Illinois employers will likely contest and fight vigorously to defeat any claim that a case of Covid 19 is the result of a work exposure. We still expect substantial litigation and fighting by the attorneys who represent the insurance companies to attempt to avoid responsibility for the employer’s obligations under the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act.

If you have any questions or concerns over COVID-19 exposure or any other issue concerning the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Laws or benefits, please do not hesitate to call us anytime at 1-800-444-1525 or 1-312-263-6330.

Grocery store and delivery workers have recently been thrown into the front lines in the battle against the most dangerous pandemic in 100 years. As business after business shuts down, food delivery has become one of the most important parts of the economy. Across the country, workers at places like Amazon, Walmart, Sam’s Club, Kroger, Domino’s, Costco, Uber Eats, Chipotle, and McDonalds have received much deserved praise and admiration for providing essential services to millions of people sheltered and isolated at home. While these employers are increasing wages and making promises to provide protective equipment, workers are still falling ill. What’s more, is that these employees are still getting hurt on the job and they still aren’t fully aware of their rights to compensation. While drivers involved in car accidents often have the ability to file two different claims, workers contracting Covid on the job are being left in the dark by their companies.

The family of a Chicago-area Walmart employee filed a lawsuit against the company for wrongful death alleging that Walmart failed to keep its employee safe from the Coronavirus. In fact, two Evergreen Park employees died just four days apart from Covid. Both employees were long-term Walmart associates with nine and fifteen years of dedicated service. While legal scholars highly doubt the chances of a civil lawsuit for a work-related injury succeeding, there is no doubt that these co-workers’ families are within their rights to file a workers’ compensation claims for death benefits. In Illinois, workers’ compensation death benefits are paid for 25 years or up to $500,000.00, whichever is greater. While many lawyers would file for workers’ compensation benefits in a situation like this, a civil action, if not dismissed in the early stages of the case, still runs the risk of Walmart claiming many different highly-factual defenses. For instance, Walmart is already disputing the family’s timeline of how the deaths of its employees took place. Bottom line, Walmart will claim that the employees were not present when they contracted the disease. Like with most legal cases, corporations and employers like Walmart will hire expert doctors who almost always give an opinion that the injury or illness simply was not caused by anything on the job or the incident itself.

The concern with these deaths around Chicago is the lack of personal protective equipment at Walmart. While OSHA and the CDC may look into the matter, companies are trying to get ahead of the disease by doing their own testing and providing more protective equipment. At a minimum, these deaths have prompted companies to disinfect and sanitize the work place. Amazon has recently been testing disinfectant fog to clean warehouses and distribution centers. Regardless of whether Amazon makes a difference in the health and safety of their employees, the company has plans to hire at least 100,000 additional workers. On the one hand, the extra workers will be necessary to help with the heavy increase in demand for the necessities of life being delivered to millions of homes. On the other hand, many workers suspect that Amazon is planning to use the additional workers to fill the vacant spots of sick and injured workers who not only get hurt in slip and fall incidents or get hit by forklifts, but also for those who contract Covid and are off work for at least two weeks. The spread of the disease at Amazon warehouses is so prevalent that more than fifty Amazon warehouses have reported Coronavirus cases. This comes as no surprise when a typical warehouse worker touches as many as two thousand items per day and many of them do this without personal protection.

The world is watching the dedication and courage of Amazon workers hour by hour each day through this crisis. Amazon management has clearly taken notice of their importance and provided wage increases. Still, without more safety protections at these warehouses, Amazon workers are becoming more worried about their health and the health of their families in these uncertain times. To protect against work accidents involving Covid-19, Amazon workers at distribution and fulfillment centers were informed via text message on Sunday that it was recommended that they wear a mask to work. Most people would presume that Amazon would be supplying the masks, but as it turns out Amazon only has a limited number of masks. When an employee wants a mask, the employee has to ask managers for a mask. The text message set out the following information to employees:

“Your health and safety is most important. We recommend everyone wears a facemask of some kind covering their nose and mouth from arrival through departure of your shift. We will have facemasks in limited quantities for anyone entering the building to wear as a recommended preventative measure, and if you prefer you may bring your own mask, including fabric masks. We have teams working nonstop to continue sourcing supplies, including masks, and are working hard to stay in stock with masks during this event. If you would like a mask, please ask a manager or designated “Hand-out POC” at the start of your shift. The mask should be used by one person for the shift and not be shared. You must also know how to use it and dispose of it safely. Details will be posted around the site.”

As with other recent concerning aspects of inadequate job safety and training at fulfillment and distribution centers, many Amazon workers are deeply concerned that the company is focused more on production than well-being and work injuries, especially given the recent hiring increases that serve as a reminder that the non-union workforce at Amazon is replaceable in management’s eyes.

Patch_of_the_Chicago_Police_Department-300x271The first loss of a Chicago police officer linked to COVID-19 will be considered an on-duty death, police leaders said Friday, giving the officer’s family access to special financial benefits.

Interim Chicago police Superintendent Charlie Beck announced that decision at Police Headquarters during an event to thank donors whose contributions have aided officers during the outbreak.

The officer, Marco DiFranco, 50, died early Thursday at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office. He was assigned to the citywide narcotics unit and was hired as a Chicago cop in 1998, police said.

The “gig economy” is where more and more people are finding work. This allows for greater flexibility for workers who do not want to be tied to one job or who have to balance earning a living with family obligations. However, this allows employers to avoid providing benefits such as health insurance and allows companies to deny that they are even an employer.

This has serious consequences when people get hurt. If you drive your own vehicle to deliver packages for Amazon Flex or to carry passengers for Uber or Lyft, they will deny that you are an employee when you get injured. They will refuse to pay the benefits to which you are entitled under the Workers’ Compensation Act. Benefits are paid to employees but not independent contractors. Companies will claim that gig workers are not employees but are independent contractors.

The Courts have found drivers for a pizzeria and for licensed taxi companies are employees. There are no decisions regarding drivers for gig economy companies such as Amazon, Uber or Lyft yet. Gig economy companies say that all workers are paid by 1099. This is only one factor in determining whether somebody is an employee.

According to an Amazon spokesperson, an worker at Joliet’s Amazon fulfillment center has recently tested positive for the novel Coronavirus (SARS – CoV2). It is understood that the employee last worked on March 18 and is in quarantine. The worker’s identity remains confidential. There is no information yet on the health and safety of co-workers. Apparently, the announcement of this case was made on a Facebook group page for local employees. Clearly, during Amazon’s recent rise in business, there are no plans to close the facility. However, this may change if another worker tests positive. This is just one of many similar cases across the United States with no end in sight to the high risk of exposure. It comes as no surprise the New York area Amazon employees are expected to strike to gain basic safety protections at their jobs against the Coronavirus even if Amazon keeps raising their pay as they have been doing over the past month.

It is doubtful that Amazon will be able to slow the spread of sickness at its warehouses. Although Amazon may be doing some deep-cleaning in its Joliet facility, the company is claiming that they are also using social distancing despite the cramped proximity in which these employees must work as demand makes Amazon orders skyrocket and the need for more workers to be present to complete those orders. For example, Amazon is using boards to write messages instead of having meetings and spreading out chairs in break rooms. When employees actually find the time to take a break, their breaks are being staggered. Even though sick employees are being told to stay home and seek medical attention, workers can have no symptoms for several days but be contagious to all people in proximity.

Amazon claims they are supporting their sick and injured employee in Joliet, following guidelines, and taking extreme measures ensure the safety of employees in Joliet. It is still widely anticipated that Amazon expects business to carry on as usual with both its warehouse workers and its Amazon Flex drivers. In fact, Amazon has begun working with Lyft to use inactive drivers to deliver for Amazon. While this is certain to provide some much needed cash to Lyft drivers, it will most certainly not provide Lyft drivers with any workers’ compensation benefits if they are injured on the job. This is because Lyft drivers are not considered employees by Lyft just like Amazon Flex drivers are not considered employees by Amazon.com, Inc. Unlike Amazon Flex and Lyft drivers, Amazon fulfillment or warehouse workers are considered employees of Amazon.com, Inc. This means that Amazon will fight each and every claim that a Lyft or Amazon Flex driver makes for work comp benefits.

The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission has announced that pursuant to the order of Governor J.B. Pritzker and the national pandemic of COVID-19 the Commission will be closed through the end of April.

For more information and the full press release click here.

Your Katz Friedman attorneys and staff, remain available to help you. We are still able to negotiate settlements, get medical bills paid and get your weekly compensation benefits.

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