California COVID-19 Workers’ Comp Claims Are Climbing
José Guzman, a 61-year-old from San Bernardino who commuted 60 miles to a Farmer John meat packing plant in Vernon, is one of the reportedly 266 workers infected in a COVID-19 outbreak at the plant, as of August 24.
When Guzman asked his employer for a mask and hand sanitizer early in the pandemic, “They said they were not responsible. They could not give us masks because they had no masks,” said Guzman to a CalMatters reporter.
In an emailed statement to CalMatters, Smithfield Foods (which owns the Vernon plant) executive Keira Lombardo said, “The reality is that we have spent tens of millions of dollars on personal protective equipment (PPE) to include millions of masks and face shields to outfit every single team member, and tens of thousands of sanitizer stations.”
Guzman filed a COVID-19 workers’ compensation claim — one of more than 35,000 Californians to do so since the beginning of the pandemic. Just in May alone, California employees filed 4,700 claims. In June, that number rose to 10,900 and reached 11,600 in July.
The Workers’ Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau of California has estimated that these claims could mean more than $2 billion in costs for employers and their insurers. To date, the families of more than 140 workers have applied for death benefits. Employers are being routinely cited by Cal/OSHA for failing to adequately protect their workers from COVID-19 disease.
Nearly 40 percent of all COVID-19 claims are made by health care workers. Public safety and other government workers, retail employees and manufacturing workers made up another 30 percent of claims.
Imperial County, a southern county in California that shares borders with Mexico and San Diego County, reported the state’s highest rate of COVID-19 cases in June and was forced to transport patients from its overwhelmed hospitals to other counties.
Because of the executive order signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in May, essential workers are may be presumed to have contracted COVID-19 while on the job and puts the burden on employers to prove otherwise. California law is undergoing extensive review, and each potential case should be individually evaluated.
Nearly 30 percent of all COVID-19 claims filed in California were denied in May. However, the denial rate dropped to 20 percent in July and is expected to reach 10 percent in August.