During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an outpouring of support and kind words that have been sent out to our front-line health care workers, our first-responders, and those workers that we have deemed essential.
While the rest of us could manage the risks, we took, these folks continued to work to protect us, keep us healthy and keep us fed.
For this, we have applauded them. We have called them brave. We tell each other that they are the real heroes. While this is all true, we must realize we are not doing everything we can do to protect them and keep them healthy.
Those workers that have remained on the job throughout this pandemic have often been forced to keep working without even basic protections, such as social distancing or masks.
Many would assume that if you contracted such a disease as COVID-19 while you are at work you would fall under the protections of worker’s compensation. This is simply not the case.
To qualify for worker’s compensation benefits for a disease that was contracted through your employment in Kansas, you must prove the disease was contracted through the occupation. But you also must demonstrate the disease was not an “ordinary disease of life” that the general public “is or may be exposed to.”
This is a difficult burden for any claimant to sustain in ordinary conditions, but one that is insurmountable during a global pandemic.
The very nature of the COVID-19 outbreak, which placed our entire population at risk, undermines the possibility that these workers will be covered. As it stands right now, Kansas law very likely will not provide coverage for those workers, and that is an absolute failure of our system.
We are not alone in our thinking. In a recent letter to Senate President Susan Wagle and Speaker of the House Ron Ryckman, Attorney General Derek Schmidt addressed this very issue.
He states, “First responders and potentially other front-line workers who are required to report for duty during the COVID-19 pandemic, and who later test positive for COVID-19, may by law be required to shoulder the difficult burden of proving they contracted the disease through their occupation to qualify for needed worker’s compensation or other benefits.”
Schmidt recommended the Legislature review this issue during their one-day session in May. They did not take it up. We hope the attorney general will join us in asking the Legislature to help our workers and take up this issue at the special session on June 3.
Kansas workers deserve to know that if they are working to support the people in this State, their elected leaders at the Capitol will support them.
This is a shameful loophole in the laws designed to protect our workers and should be addressed immediately. To ignore it will result in crushing economic uncertainty for these workers and delays in treatment that may be the difference between a full recovery and permanent physical damage or even death The workers comp protections in Kansas have been steadily stripped away since the 1990s.
The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a bright light on just how one-sided our system has become against working Kansans. Let’s create at least one silver lining out of COVID by taking a first step toward providing benefits Kansas workers have earned and certainly deserve. That is the real way we can thank our heroes.
David Morantz is president of the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association.