COVID-19 has presented American workers and employers with a variety of impacts. From its roots as an injury compensation system, American workers’ compensation has evolved on a state-by-state basis. Despite some outliers, disease has not been compensable in these systems absent specific evidentiary demonstrations or legislative definitions. The nature of COVID-19 and its challenges have led various states to react legislatively or regulatorily to retroactively amend the social contract that is workers’ compensation, and to shift virus costs to employers and insurance carriers retroactively. There remains a specific COVID-19 focus in much of that, but a suggestion of potential generalized expansion of workers’ compensation in the long-term.
This paper provides a brief outline of the history and original purposes of state-based workers’ compensation systems and offers a deeper look at the evolution of the view and coverage of “occupational” disease within these systems. It includes an in-depth examination of the legal issue of “presumption of compensability” and its implications for a no-fault based system whose design under-girded by the “grand bargain,” offered an ostensible equivalent trade-off between an injured employee’s right to sue their employer and the employer’s right to deny responsibility for injuries that occurred on the job.