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Denise Rogers (Courtesy of CT-N)

Denise Rogers knows without a doubt that she caught COVID-19 on the job.

As a shuttle driver for ProPark in New Haven, she transports doctors, nurses and other medical staff to and from Yale New Haven Hospital and the Hospital of Saint Raphael from 5:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every day.

As the employees board the shuttle, every single one passes Rogers in the driver’s seat. The shuttle only has one door, and it’s right next to her.

“This is all I do,” Rogers said. “I deal with every aspect of people in the hospital, whatever department they work in. That’s what a shuttle driver does.”

She contracted a severe case of COVID-19 in March and is still out of a job. When she went to the emergency room the first time, the doctors assumed it was related to her asthma and did not test Rogers for the virus. A week later, she traveled by ambulance to the hospital again, where she tested positive for COVID-19.

Rogers and two other Connecticut essential workers testified Wednesday before a virtual joint hearing of the legislature’s Labor and Public Employees and Insurance and Real Estate committees.

She has been battered with medical bills, lingering complications from COVID-19 that prevent her from working and the death of her husband, who she also believes contracted COVID-19 on the job. Rogers applied for workers’ compensation, but her application was denied.

So far, 29 of the 739 employees who have filed for workers’ compensation have requested hearings. Those that did not request a hearing are either receiving benefits or do not have issues with the claims leading them to request a hearing before the commission, according to Stephen Morelli, commissioner of the state Workers’ Compensation Commission.

“The message I will leave for anyone who feels aggrieved because they have contracted COVID-19, they’ve had illness — we’re here,” Morelli said. “If you are not receiving what you feel you should be receiving, file your hearing request in the appropriate district and we will adjudicate it in accordance with the statute and the law.”

Courtesy of CT-N
Dori Harrington an LPN (Courtesy of CT-N)

Other states have taken measures to make it easier for struggling workers to receive compensation. As of June 9, six states have enacted legislation creating a workers’ compensation presumption. While the presumption can be rebutted, unless the employer provides sufficient evidence, it would be difficult to challenge. Seven other states have enacted the same presumption through executive orders.

Gov. Ned Lamont has said he supports the current workers’ compensation process and doesn’t see any need to make changes in the short-term.

Morelli said without a workers’ compensation presumption, employers have an incentive to deny a claim. If an employer fails to file a denial within 28 days, the employer cannot defend themselves in the case. Therefore, Morelli said about 90% of workers’ compensation claims filed never make it to the commission for a hearing.

“In those cases, there is going to be denials,” Morelli said. “It doesn’t mean there won’t be benefits paid. It means the employer is reserving their right to down the road, to contest the extent of the injury.”

Dori Harrington, a licensed practical nurse at Parkville Care Center, filed a claim after she says she contracted COVID-19 on the job. She was denied. At the hearing, she read part of the denial letter aloud.

“Alleged occupational disease of coronavirus/COVID-19 did not arise out of and in the portion of the employee’s employment and is due to non-occupational causes,” Harrington read. “COVID-19 is not distinctly associated with the employee’s occupation as an LPN such that there is a direct causal connection between the duties of the employment and the disease contract and does not qualify as an occupational disease under general statutes.”

Harrington said she received this denial letter even before she filled out the packet where she could detail the circumstances at the job that led her to believe her infection occurred as she was working.

Like Rogers, Harrington is certain she caught the virus on the job. On her floor, 25 of the 29 patients contracted the virus and Harrington said she was not equipped with the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) throughout the most deadly months of the pandemic.

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Sen. Matt Lesser (Courtesy of CT-N)

Even if Connecticut did adopt the presumption as several other states have, some lawyers testified that these cases are often too difficult to prove.

“If you don’t prove the case you don’t win,” said Anne Zovas of Strunk, Dodge, Aiken and Zovas, a law firm in Rocky Hill. “If someone contracts the flu, it is very difficult to obtain a medical opinion that a flu symptom was contracted in the workplace.”

Diane Retucci, president of the Workers’ Compensation Trust, said the trust has accepted 25 claims of workers who tested positive for COVID-19.

As for a legislative solution, lawmakers are torn. State Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, said lawmakers should look holistically at the situation and opt for a solution that will help these workers who are in dire need as soon as possible.

“When we say, ‘Let the system work,’ and I listen to the workers who testified today, that’s not working for them,” the co-chair of the Labor Committee said. “Our job here in this little piece we can address is not to hand them over workers’ compensation, but to give them a fair shot of getting workers’ compensation for being out there and protecting us.”

While workers’ compensation would help alleviate some of the financial struggles for essential workers who became ill, it might be too little, too late for Rogers.

“Without worker’s comp, I am facing medical bills, my hospital bill alone was over $180,000,” Rogers said. “I have a $500 deductible. I still have to pay copay. The biggest problem I am facing is I was covered by my husband, his insurance. For me to keep it, I need to come up with $800 a month. I don’t know how I am going to pay my bills. I don’t know how I am going to return back to work. I am going to have long-term damage. I have been stretched emotionally. I don’t know what is going to happen to me.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story mistakenly stated the number of hearing requests and what they meant.