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Essential Workers Denied Compensation For Job-Related COVID-19 Exposure

Joe Amon
Connecticut Public/NENC

Denise Rogers said all she did was get up and go to work. A few days later, she was hospitalized and her husband of more than 20 years was dead. 

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Rogers worked as a shuttle bus driver in New Haven and said she drove health care workers treating COVID-19 patients to and from the hospital during the height of the pandemic. She was one of several front-line workers who addressed lawmakers Wednesday, calling for the state to enact a more robust set of protections for essential workers who believe they contracted the novel coronavirus while doing their job. 

“The shuttle bus only has one door. And it’s located directly opposite of the driver. I didn’t have no glass shield or any other barriers to protect me,” Rogers said. 

Rogers’ hospital bills for coronavirus treatment after her discharge exceeded $100,000. Her husband also contracted coronavirus and died.

Sick, grieving and unable to work, Rogers said she filed for workers’ compensation.

“But my employer denied my claim, saying my job transporting health care workers would not cause me to [contract] COVID-19,” Rogers said. “Because I could not tell them exactly who I got it from, they denied my case.”

Rogers and workers’ advocates, including the AFL-CIO and the National Employment Law Project, want legislators to make the state’s coronavirus workers’ compensation laws presumptive. 

That would mean if an essential worker got sick with COVID, it would be on the employer to prove that it wasn’t the job that got the worker sick -- not on the employee to prove that the job did get them sick. 

But Joe Brennan from the Connecticut Business and Industry Association said a broad-brush presumptive provision could punish cash-strapped employers who made the decision to stay open for the public good. 

“We’re not going to be able to accept the fact that every single employee that’s determined to be ‘essential’ … that anybody that gets COVID is going to be a workers’ comp case. I think that’s going to be extremely problematic for the system,” Brennan said.

Other states like California and Arkansas have adjusted their workers’ compensation laws because of the novel coronavirus. Advocates urged lawmakers to take up the matter in a special legislative session.

Diane Ritucci, with the Workers’ Compensation Trust, said federal relief programs like the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, have helped to relieve some of the economic stresses of coronavirus. She said if employees feel their claims were wrongly denied, they can appeal through the state Workers’ Compensation Commission

“For those who have a direct exposure in the workplace, the workers’ comp system will take care of those claims,” Ritucci said. “We will all feel the pain of this pandemic, but it won’t break any one of us if you allow it to go its natural path and natural course.” 

Rogers, who was married to her husband for more than 20 years, said she’s now checking the box next to “single” on the reams of paper work she’s been confronted with after her diagnosis and his death. 

She said time, and waiting for the system to hear an appeal, is a luxury she doesn’t have. 

“I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bills. I don’t know when I’m going to be able to return back to work,” said Rogers. “I’ve been stretched emotionally and financially. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me … I feel broken.”

Copyright 2020 Connecticut Public

Patrick Skahill is a reporter at WNPR. He covers science and the environment. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of WNPR's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.