What COVID-19 Laid Bare: Adventures in Workers’ Compensation Causation

34 Pages Posted: 25 Aug 2021 Last revised: 25 Jul 2022

See all articles by Michael C. Duff

Michael C. Duff

Saint Louis University School of Law

Date Written: August 6, 2021


This essay performs a close analysis of workers’ compensation coverage of COVID-19 and arrives at the conclusion that it should not be “impossible” to prove in a legal sense that an employee’s COVID-19 was caused by work. Scientific proof is not the same as legal proof: workers’ compensation law has never required that claims must be supported by irrefutable scientific proof of workplace causation. Yet repeatedly one heard this suggestion during public discussion on workers’ compensation coverage of employees.

Still, there is good evidence that even when workers’ compensation undisputedly covers work-related disease employers seldom pay benefits (and states do not compel them to do so). This is one reality that COVID laid bare: the workers’ compensation system rigidly resists paying occupational disease claims. The essay also explores a news account from Minnesota stating that nine hundred and thirty-five of nine hundred and thirty-five workers’ compensation COVID-19-related claims from meatpacking employees had not been paid as of February 2021. There was no shortage of other stories during the pandemic of mass denial of workers’ compensation claims in the meatpacking industry, a development having a disparate impact on communities of color, where more than half of all meatpacking employees are Latinx. These unpaid claim numbers suggest that something was “wrong” with causation analyses lower down in the administrative system.

Another truth COVID laid bare is that, aside from workers’ compensation, there is no nationwide short-term disability program in the United States. This leads to the conclusion that, if workers’ compensation insists upon super-strict versions of causation to cover claims, a different method of compensating short-term disability during pandemics or other “environmental” crises may become necessary. The conclusion seems almost inescapable because public health experts like Dr. Fauci are warning that we remain at risk for “new disease emergences” for the “foreseeable future.”

Keywords: workers' compensation, COVID-19, Causation, positional risk, medical evidence

JEL Classification: J30, J38, J61, J83

Suggested Citation

Duff, Michael C., What COVID-19 Laid Bare: Adventures in Workers’ Compensation Causation (August 6, 2021). San Diego Law Review, Vol. 59, No. 2, 2022, Forthcoming , Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3910154 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3910154

Michael C. Duff (Contact Author)

Saint Louis University School of Law ( email )

100 N. Tucker Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63101
United States

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