A Turkish military flight crew member, right, bumps elbows with a FEMA worker as crews unload a donation of medical supplies from Turkey on April 28.

A Turkish military flight crew member, right, bumps elbows with a FEMA worker as crews unload a donation of medical supplies from Turkey on April 28. Patrick Semansky/AP

Labor Department Lowers the Bar for Some Feds to Prove Workplace COVID-19 Exposure

Federal workers in jobs like law enforcement and health care who contract the novel coronavirus will automatically qualify for workers compensation benefits, the department said.

The Labor Department this week highlighted updated rules for how federal employees can receive workers compensation benefits if they are infected with the coronavirus, partially heeding recent calls from lawmakers and labor unions.

In recent weeks, officials have called for Congress’ next round of COVID-19 response legislation to include a provision guaranteeing that frontline federal employees who continue to commute to work and interact regularly with the public and contract the virus will qualify for workers compensation through what is called a “presumption of workplace causation.”

Labor officials this week highlighted guidance issued in March, for the approval of workers compensation claims through the Federal Employees Compensation Act, effectively providing that presumption of workplace causation for some federal workers who contract COVID-19.

“DOL acknowledges that it is difficult to determine the precise moment and method of virus transmission,” the department wrote. “Therefore, when an employee claims FECA benefits due to COVID-19, federal workers who are required to have in-person and close proximity interactions with the public on a frequent basis—such as members of law enforcement, first responders, and front-line medical and public health personnel—will be considered to be in high-risk employment . . . In such cases, there is an implicit recognition that a higher likelihood exists of infection due to high-risk employment.”

If a federal worker deemed to be engaged in “high-risk employment” contracts the coronavirus, the department said that it will automatically assume that it was “proximately caused” by the employee's work. If the claim is filed within 30 days, the employee is eligible for up to 45 days of continuation of pay.

However, if federal employees' jobs are not among the first responder occupations considered high-risk employment, they must provide evidence tying their coronavirus exposure to their work.

“If a COVID-19 claim is filed by a person whose position is not considered high-risk, [the department] will require the claimant to provide a factual statement and any available evidence concerning exposure,” officials wrote. “The employing agency will also be expected to provide [the department] with any information they have regarding the alleged exposure, and to indicate whether they are supporting or controverting the claim.”

The Labor Department has created a task force devoted to helping federal employees, agencies and claims examiners to guide them through the process and what evidence may be needed in an individual case.

But in a statement to Government Executive, a Labor Department spokesperson argued that there was no change in policy, as the department is using existing regulations.

"The department has applied existing policies . . . to the current situation involving COVID-19 and has developed a process to efficiently and effectively gather the necessary information to properly designate a position as high risk," the spokesperson wrote. "That designation does not mean acceptance is automatic as an employee has to meet all other elements of a claim, including a diagnosis of COVID-19, and the employing agency must agree that the employee was performing the duties of the high risk position at the time the employee was exposed."

This story has been updated to include additional comment from the Labor Department.