Long COVID Casts Costly Shadow over Workers’ Comp

Workers’ compensation insurers are grappling with covering claims for workplace COVID-19 infections that develop into long COVID, as those claims may stay open for years in some cases.

For companies in states that adopted laws requiring workers’ comp insurers to cover claims for employees who contracted COVID-19 in the workplace, a long-COVID claim can become costly, particularly if it results in permanent disability benefits, which may be paid out for life.

Workers’ compensation claims that include treatment for long-COVID symptoms were four times more likely to result in permanent disability benefits than other COVID-19 claims, according to a report by the Workers’ Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau of California. While this data was for California only, statistically, workers in other states likely have had similar outcomes.

Long-COVID claims will linger for years, but they constitute a small percentage of overall COVID-19 claims. According to the Rating Bureau, in 2020 and 2021:

  • 91% of COVID-19 workers’ comp claims involved a mild initial infection that did not require hospitalization,
  • 7% required hospitalization, and
  • 2% were death claims.

Of those claims, 13% developed into long COVID.

The biggest issue with long COVID is that it can spur other health problems and can worsen pre-existing conditions. And if a COVID-19 infection was initially covered by workers’ comp, so are issues that develop as a result of that infection.

Long-COVID claims can be expensive:

  • For long-COVID claims with permanent disability, the average medical cost 18 months after policy inception was $154,500, compared to $59,800 for other COVID-19 claims without long-COVID symptoms.
  • For long-COVID claims with temporary disability, the average medical cost was $37,300, 500% more than for other COVID-19 claims.
  • Even long-COVID medical-only claims (no time off work) resulted in $7,100 in medical costs, compared to $1,400 for other COVID-19 claims.

The report also found that the risks of long COVID are higher in female workers, workers over 50 years of age and workers who have comorbidities.

Long-COVID symptoms

The biggest challenge with these claims is that there is no way to diagnose long covid, which affects every person differently. People who have pre-existing health problems have a higher chance of developing long COVID, and those problems can exacerbate the symptoms.

Researchers have documented more than 200 symptoms, with varying severity and duration. However, the <i>Journal of the American Medical Association</i> recently published a paper listing the 12 most common symptoms associated with long COVID:

  • Worsening of health after mental or physical activity
  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Dizziness
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms
  • Heart palpitations
  • Changes in sexual desire or capacity
  • Loss of or change in smell or taste
  • Thirst
  • Chronic cough
  • Chest pain
  • Abnormal movements.

Complications for employers

Long-COVID claims may become more complex, since individuals with long-term complications have a new burden of proof to show that their lingering symptoms are directly associated with their original COVID-19 claims.

If you have workers with ongoing COVID-19 claims, it’s advised you treat them with empathy and respect.

Employers who have workers with long COVID must also contend with new guidance by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that long COVID may be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

That means employers who have a worker with long COVID may be required to enter into an interactive process if they ask for accommodations.

Reasonable accommodations can include:

  • Job restructuring,
  • Modified work schedules,
  • Reassignment to open positions,
  • Allotting extra time for work preparation and assignments,
  • Providing extended work breaks, and
  • Providing apps or software to help with organization and focus.

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