Workers afflicted by the coronavirus could make compensation claims with the presumption that they were infected on the job under a wide-ranging bill advanced Thursday by the Labor and Public Employees Committee.
The labor committee passed two versions of the 52-page omnibus legislation, which included the workers’ compensation change — a rebuttable presumption the employee caught the virus at work — as well as other elements like increased burial benefits and the elimination of exemptions that shielded some businesses from offering paid sick time.
Sen. Julie Kushner, co-chairwoman of the panel, tried to frame the scope of the bill in terms of the historic and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s not common to do this but we’re not living in common times,” she said. “We are living through — hopefully most of us are living through, many have died — a pandemic that we have never experienced in our lifetimes and the cost of that on workers… was enormous.”
The committee approved the bills after a lengthy debate. Republicans opposed many elements of the proposals. Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Southington, said he wasn’t sure where to start his objections.
“Where is the kitchen sink? What sections is that on?” he said. “Just teasing.”
However, much of the debate centered on the workers’ compensation presumption. The bills would reinstate and make permanent a change imposed briefly by Gov. Ned Lamont last year through executive order. Lamont let the order expire last May.
When the committee raised the issue for a public hearing this month, labor leaders testified that more than 3,100 Connecticut workers had pending compensation claims related to COVID-19. Nearly 300 of those claims had been initially denied and were being litigated by the Workers’ Compensation Commission, according to Sal Luciano, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO.
During Thursday’s meeting, Sampson said the current system was working as intended. He argued both that it was hard to prove where someone contracted the coronavirus and that workers were already covered if they could prove they had contracted the virus on the job.
“I think it’s a stretch by any logical view of our medical knowledge. I don’t think you can track where someone contracted a virus that easily. To just automatically say someone got it at work is a complex issue, which creates other problems. My understanding of the current law is that people are protected, if they can document that they did in fact receive an illness on the job that they would be covered for work comp,” Sampson said.
In written testimony submitted for the bill’s public hearing, the Connecticut Business and Industry Association said the change would create “unsustainable costs” that would threaten the viability of the workers’ compensation program.
Rep. Robyn Porter, co-chairwoman of the committee, said she was frustrated by considerations given to employers over the welfare of frontline workers. She said workers could not control where they were exposed to the virus once they left the house in order to work a front line job.
“If everybody is allowed to stay home and I’m being told that I have to go to work, the minute I step my foot out the threshold of my front door, that liability is no longer mine,” she said. “We shouldnt be treating [workers] like sacrificial lambs, literally being led to slaughter.”
The committee sent a version of the bill to both chambers of the legislature. In the event it cleared both, it would face a skeptical governor. Lamont allowed his own executive order to expire and has expressed concerns about the presumption.
“I’m not sure this should go on forever,” Lamont said. “It would be really expensive for workers’ comp costs.”