When many U.S. businesses closed their offices at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, officials braced themselves for an avalanche of workers’ compensation claims.
After all, most of the millions of employees who suddenly began working from home had done so only sporadically before the health crisis, even at companies that permitted the practice. In addition, their homes were not necessarily set up ergonomically to support long hours of remote work.
Many learned the hard way the downsides of typing on a laptop while relaxing in a La-Z-Boy recliner. Many also delayed setting up their home offices properly because they weren’t sure how the global health emergency would last.
The strain of these improvised arrangements took its physical toll on remote workers. According to ergonomics expert Vivienne Fleischer, cases of neck, shoulder and lower back pain and ear fatigue from overuse of earbuds reached levels she has not seen in two decades.
“They’re not going to HR to report things,” Fleischer told The Hartford Courant, adding that remote workers were concerned about being sent back to the office if they complained. “They might say I need support. My back hurts. I need a new chair.”
A poll from the American Chiropractic Association echoed Fleischer’s observations.
Almost 60 percent of respondents told the trade group that the lack of movement was the main reason why musculoskeletal issues rose during the pandemic. Psychological stress and poor posture were other factors cited by the ACA survey.
Aches and pains, yes, but limited costs
Businesses weren’t sure what to do. According to The Hartford, one of the largest workers’ compensation providers, the number of new customers seeking the insurer’s injury prevention services, such as ergonomic assessments and therapy, has skyrocketed by 200 percent in the past 18 months.
“And so what we did at (The) Hartford is, we reached out to our customers, particularly those that we thought might be supporting their employees to work from home for the first time,” Mary Nasenbenny, the company’s chief claims officer, said in an interview. “And we provided them with tools and tips on how to ergonomically set up their environment, to keep people from having, you know, the typical injuries that we might see.”
Still, the expected explosion in workers’ compensation claims hasn’t materialized.
Despite increased telework-related complaints, the number of workers’ compensation cases actually fell overall during the health crisis because there were fewer employed workers able to file claims, says Elliot Schreur, research director for the Workers’ Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG), an organization of workers’ compensation attorneys.
As for claims directly related to the virus itself, Covid claims are less expensive than non-Covid claims, on average.
Available data from Florida show that 95 percent of Covid claims cost insurers less than $5,000 because most people with the virus experience only minor, flu-like symptoms.
“They miss going to work for, maybe two, three, four weeks, and then they return to work with no permanent disability,” said Malcolm Crosland, WILG president. “So what you’re looking at is, for the vast majority of Covid-related claims, a period of temporary total disability benefits and some fairly minor medical treatments.”
Of course, there are exceptions, such as the so-called “long-haul” Covid cases, in which the aftereffects of the virus, such as fatigue, depression, breathing difficulties and brain fog, linger for more than a year.
“Often the workers most prone to be injured are the first to be laid off, and workers are reluctant to file claims when job prospects are less favorable,” Schreur wrote in an email. “Data showing an increase in claims does not necessarily reveal information about how many claims were approved to be paid and for what amount.”
“Occupational” vs. “ordinary” diseases
Many Covid cases also fall outside the parameters of workers’ compensation laws, which focus on “occupational diseases” instead of “ordinary diseases of life,” such as the flu and common cold. Figuring out the difference between the different types of risks faced by workers became more complicated during the pandemic.
“Workers deemed essential, including health-care workers, mass-transit operators and grocery-store workers are at a high risk of exposure to the virus while at work,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). “But the more hazardous working conditions do not guarantee that a Covid-19 infection would be covered under workers’ compensation in most states.”
More than a dozen states and Puerto Rico have taken action to provide workers’ compensation coverage to include Covid-19 as a work-related illness, according to the NCSL.