Sick nurses must prove they got COVID-19 on the job
A longtime Sonoma County nurse first felt sick in March, starting with a sore throat and stuffy nose, followed by a deep fatigue. Nearly two weeks later, a confirmation: she had contracted COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
But where did she get it? At the hospital where she works? Or somewhere else in the community?
For her and other health care workers on the front lines, the answers to those questions are critical. They determine whether their treatment is covered by a limited bank of paid sick days and health insurance or by workers' compensation, an employer-funded system that offers expanded benefits - including lost wages, job protection guarantees and death benefits - to workers who are hurt on the job.
While local health care workers say that going to work is the riskiest thing they do when it comes to contracting COVID-19, some local hospitals are pushing back against claims they got sick while performing their duties.
Hospitals have told employees they must prove they were exposed to the coronavirus at work in order to qualify for workers' compensation benefits, according to several local nurses, including the longtime employee of a local hospital who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared losing her job if she was identified.
Sonoma County's three largest hospitals said they were following the law by requiring employees to document a connection between their work and their illness. One, Sutter Health, changed its internal policies earlier this month and now assumes that all employees infected with the virus were exposed at work, unless proven otherwise. The two remaining hospital companies, Kaiser Permanente and Providence St. Joseph Health, make decisions about employees' claims on a case-by-case basis but have increased sick leave granted to workers exposed to the virus.
North Coast Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, chairman of the Assembly's health committee, was surprised and alarmed to learn of the nurses' experiences from The Press Democrat. He said he would look into the issue to see if new laws are needed to protect essential workers who are risking their health at work while most others isolate at home.
“It's going to require a legislative fix,” said Wood, who said he would raise the issue with lawmakers when the Assembly reconvenes in May.
“You shouldn't go to work and get sick on the job and not be able to have the protections of workers' compensation - that's my opinion,” Wood said. “Today, you can still file a claim but the burden of proof will be really difficult.”
Labor unions are pushing employers to give greater protection to hospital staff and other essential workers who get sick with COVID-19. Such protections are critical, particularly at a time when protective masks, gowns and other gear are in short supply, said Cyndi Krahne, chief nurse representative with California Nurses Association, which represents about 1,230 registered nurses in Sonoma County and 100,000 statewide.
“It's really exhausting that we have to fight for personal protective equipment, then fight to prove we were infected at work,” said Krahne, who works for Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa. “Nurses are already anxious and exhausted trying to care for patients.”
Protecting the health of their workers and the patients they serve is a top priority, representatives of all three Sonoma County hospitals said. To reduce their risk of exposure to the coronavirus, they said their hospitals adhere to the latest guidelines from public health authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When employees have been stricken with the virus, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, all three hospitals said they followed state regulations to determine whether the illness qualified for workers' comp. Those regulations require an employee demonstrate the illness or injury was related to the job.
“We do not hold our employees to any different standard regarding workers' compensation claims for COVID-19,” said Debora Catsavas, senior vice president of human resources for Kaiser Permanente Northern California.
States take action
Statewide, local health departments have reported 2,789 health care workers have tested positive for COVID-19, according to data released Tuesday by the California Department of Public Health. In Sonoma County, 33 health care workers have tested positive, accounting for 1 in 5 of the county's confirmed cases as of Tuesday. The concentration of cases reflects, in part, the priority placed on testing health care workers, county spokeswoman Jennifer Larocque said.