Help for workers exposed to COVID? Not in Oregon

By Don McIntosh

They have it in Arkansas. They have it in Kentucky, Florida, and North Dakota. And Washington. In at least 18 states, front-line workers who are sidelined by exposure to COVID-19 are eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. But the Oregon Legislature, with its Democratic supermajority, has so far left first-responders, hospital workers and essential workers like child care, grocery and farm workers to suffer lost wages and medical bills if they’re forced to stay home because they were exposed to or contract COVID-19.

Oregon’s labor movement has been making noise about it almost since the pandemic was announced in March. The Oregon AFL-CIO, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555, and the Oregon State Fire Fighters Council have been calling for a “presumption” in which essential workers who lose work because they test positive for COVID-19 would automatically be covered by workers’ compensation insurance and wouldn’t have to prove the exposure took place at work, which can be hard to do.

First they asked Gov. Kate Brown to issue an executive order that essential workers who contract COVID-19 be covered by workers’ compensation. Other governors have issued such orders, but Brown’s office said she lacks statutory authority to do so. Then they asked the agency in charge of regulating workers’ comp to issue an administrative rule, but were told they didn’t have the authority either. They approached legislative leaders, and were told to take it up with the Workers’ Compensation Management-Labor Advisory Committee (MLAC), a committee evenly divided between governor-appointed labor and employer representatives that advises the Legislature on workers comp reforms.

At the governor’s request, MLAC met six times in June and July and heard emotional testimony from workers who contracted COVID-19 at work (as far as they know) but had their workers’ compensation claims denied. As of July 10,  out of 557 COVID-related workers’ comp claims in Oregon, about three-fourths were accepted, but 145 had been denied. SAIF, the quasi-public workers’ comp insurer that covers about half of Oregon workers, is accepting about 87% of claims, but some large employers that self-insure are denying claims at a high rate. Providence Health Systems, which is self-insured, denied 41 out of 44 workers’ compensation claims by its employees.

After its month of meeting and study, MLAC deadlocked among predictable lines: Labor representatives wanted the presumption, and employer representatives opposed it, on the grounds that it might increase worker’s comp insurance rates, and because workers might have contracted the virus outside of work.

“Front line workers have waited six months for a presumption,” said Oregon AFL-CIO political director Jess Giannettino Villatoro. “We’ve gone to the governor, to the agency, to the Legislature, to MLAC.… Inaction by the Legislature is only creating worse problems for front-line workers.”

IBEW Local 48 attorney Diana Winther, who serves as labor co-chair of MLAC, says it’s still possible MLAC could agree on a recommendation at its next meeting, scheduled for Sept. 11.

But Local 555 is ready to put pressure directly on lawmakers to solve the problem, says Secretary-Treasurer Jeff Anderson. The Oregon Legislature has held two special sessions to deal with the COVID crisis, but declined to vote on any legislative concepts to establish the workers’ comp presumption. Now Anderson says Local 555 is asking state lawmakers to sign a letter in favor of the presumption. And those who don’t sign shouldn’t expect any support for their re-election, Anderson says: Local 555 might instead redirect political campaign resources to fund legal help for COVID-exposed workers who find their workers’ comp claims denied.

The issue is currently legislative priority number one for Local 555. At least 121 members have been diagnosed since the pandemic began, Anderson said—at more than 50 grocery stores around the state.

“It’s appalling that we don’t have protections for people who are putting their life on the line,” Anderson told the Labor Press. “They’re treating us like disposable workers. We need leadership from our elected officials, and we’re not getting it.”

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