These Are the 7 Biggest Workers’ Comp Stories from 2020

Our most-read workers’ comp stories of 2020 revolve around the novel coronavirus, its worker safety implications and the financial effects it’s had on the industry.
By: | December 17, 2020

Workers’ compensation stakeholders could not have predicted the trajectory 2020 would take.

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At the beginning of the year, executives predicted concerns over the classification of workers within the gig economy and the aging workforce would be top-of-mind

Then, COVID-19 hit U.S. shores and priorities quickly shifted. Suddenly, keeping workers safe from the virus and shifting workers’ comp programs to virtual or telehealth services where possible became top priority.   

As with every industry, workers’ comp has been deeply affected by the novel coronavirus and many of 2020’s top workers’ comp stories revolve around the disease, the worker safety implications and the financial effects the virus could have on the industry. Here are the stories everyone was watching in 2020. 

1) When Is Coronavirus Covered by Workers’ Comp?

Almost as soon as the virus hit the U.S. questions arose about whether or not it was compensable under workers’ compensation.

COVID-19’s ability to be transmitted asymptomatically makes it difficult to determine whether someone contracted the virus at the grocery store or at work, making it difficult for payers to deduce whether or not it’s compensable. 

In March, Risk & Insurance® talked to workers’ comp stakeholders and an employment attorney to learn more about when the virus is compensable. They noted that states often use a two-prong test for determining compensability for occupational illnesses.

The test, which is used in many states, determines that a disease is compensable if it arose in the scope of employment and if it was caused by conditions particular to the work. 

Since then, presumption laws have made the disease compensable for essential and frontline workers in many states. 

2) COVID-19 Is Exacerbating Employee Burnout. Here’s What Employers Can Do

Physical illnesses weren’t the only concern for workers’ comp payers when it came to the effects of COVID-19, however; mental illnesses factored into their worries as well, especially when it came to burnout. 

A survey conducted in April by Eagle Hill Consulting found that one-fourth of U.S. employees were experiencing burnout related to additional stress caused by COVID-19.

A variety of factors contributed to this stress, including the rush to begin working from home, fears over employment security and the additional stressors of trying to watch and home school children while working full-time as daycares and schools closed.   

Employers have been looking for ways to respond to these issues since the pandemic began. Their efforts have included referring employees to EAP programs, shifting in-person mental health services to virtual offerings and offering flexibility where possible through continued remote-work arrangements.   

3) COVID-19 and Recession: How Both Could Impact Return to Work

This March, WCRI rehashed a 2010 report on the intersection of return-to-work and economic recessions that has revealing implications for a country reeling with the economic effects of COVID-19. 

The report examined the direct and indirect effects a recession could have on return-to-work. It found that workers, wary of losing their jobs, may rush to return-to-work, putting themselves at risk for re-injury. 

Additionally, it notes that scarce job opportunities may delay return-to-work for employees who are leaving their pre-injury employer.  It notes that a doubling unemployment rate increases the percentage of injured workers experiencing longer-term unemployment from 14.7 percent to 18.7 percent.

The rapid closures associated with COVID-19 could exacerbate these issues, leaving more workers who are eager to return-to-work facing longer-term unemployment after their injuries. 

4) 4 Causes of Zoom Fatigue and How to Address Them

The shift to remote-work has brought new workplace maladies with it, many of them related to the toll technology takes on our bodies. Zoom fatigue is one such condition.

Characterized by eye-strain, visual overload and anxiety, the condition is draining workers’ energy and reducing their productivity. 

The condition is linked to the increased amount of time employees are spending in virtual meetings, which cause visual stain and overload because they combine many different, contradictory videos to attendees that are difficult to process as a whole. 

The anxiety of being on screen can also be a lot for workers, causing them to feel more stress and less productive.

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The condition is one of many that came with remote-work. Without ergonomic workstations, employees may be increasing the strain on their backs, wrists and necks that could lead to a rise in tech-neck, carpal tunnel and other conditions.   

5) Mask Wearing Prevents COVID Spread; But Could It Also Be Ushering in Workers’ Comp Claims?

Since it was discovered they could help curb the spread of the virus, facemasks have become a staple of everyday life. States have adopted mask-mandates, requiring many people to wear masks whenever they are outside of their homes. 

While masks are necessary to help reduce transmission of COVID-19, some in the workers’ comp industry worried that they may result in breathing issues amongst workers

Research has found that mask usage could lead to improper breathing in employees, which in turn could cause anxiety, headaches, increased heart rate, dizziness and fatigue. 

Rapid, shallow breathing, like that which sometimes occurs when people mask up, keeps people’s bodies in high alert states that make people feel more anxious and reduces oxygen levels in the blood. 

To help avoid these negative effects and the workers’ comp claims that could come with them, experts recommend teaching employees how to breathe properly while masked. 

6) California’s COVID-19 Presumptions Could Mean Big Costs for Workers’ Comp

When it comes to new regulations and legislation affecting the workers’ comp industry, California is always a state to watch.

Over the summer, the state’s governor, Gavin Newsom signed an executive order that provided sweeping COVID-19 presumptions for workers. 

The order provided that any worker who was working outside of the home at the direction of their employer, could be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits if they tested positive for COVID-19 within 14 days of performing “labor of services” at their place of work.  

The executive order has since been codified into law by SB 1159, which Newsom signed in September

When the executive order was signed, there was speculation that workers’ comp presumptions could bring major costs to the industry, but so far COVID-19 claims costs have been minimal aside from in rare, catastrophic cases. Surveys have found that 96 percent of COVID claims cost less than $3,500 and payers expect total claims to decrease by about 20 percent for the year. 

7) Longer Claims, Falling Premiums: NCCI Details How COVID-19 Could Affect Workers’ Comp

Losses due to COVID-19 presumptions may have been overblown, but that does not mean that the virus has had zero financial impact on workers’ compensation.

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Rising unemployment rates could lead to falling premiums and COVID-related care delays, NCCI reported in April

Since then, industry thought-leaders have been warning about premium decreases and the effects they could have on workers’ comp. As prolonged businesses closures lead to payroll productions, premium dollars are dropping off and these losses could even affect insurance profitability.  

“People are not paying nearly enough attention to what’s likely to be a 20-25 percent drop in premiums across the country,” Joe Paduda, principal at Health Strategy Associates told Risk & Insurance® in July. “We should be terrified of the drop in premiums.” &

Courtney DuChene is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

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