When the COVID-19 virus reached the United States in late 2019, early 2020, it was impossible to predict how it would unfold and the impact it would have on the US economy, healthcare system, workers’ compensation, and human life. Inspirien sat down with attorney Fred Fohrell to discuss how workers’ compensation laws and COVID-19 intersect, and how, despite all of the challenges, new models for worker protection and injury avoidance have sprung to life.

Mr. Fohrell, whose law practice is in Huntsville, Alabama, regularly provides legal services to the Healthcare Workers’ Compensation Self-Insurance Fund (“HWCF”), which is managed by Inspirien. He has served as Chair of the Alabama State Bar Workers’ Compensation Section and on the Legal Advisory Committee of the Alabama Department of Labor Workers’ Compensation Division.

Our interview began with a discussion of the challenges facing employers as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic. For Fohrell, who is used to thinking many moves ahead, the task of overlaying the unknowns of COVID-19 with existing Alabama Law was no easy feat.

“When we started asking questions to positive COVID-19 employees,” Fohrell noted an immediate issue was that of “determining where the virus was contracted and how the employee would prove such.” He noted that almost every positive COVID-19 employee questioned had experienced multiple potential virus exposures during the two to three week period preceding the positive diagnosis. He found that virtually every employee had been around numerous persons at the grocery store, shopping centers, restaurants, gas stations, or countless other locations. The bottom line was that it would be almost impossible for the employee to prove that their COVID-19 condition was contracted at work.

Nonetheless, even though successful workers’ compensation COVID-19 claims would be highly unlikely, Fohrell found that private employers, as well as government entities, developed creative solutions to help employees avoid and combat COVID-19. Many private employers, especially in healthcare, took the additional step of voluntarily paying their employees for lost time due to COVID-19. In addition to compensation, many medical charges were written off or otherwise resolved. There was a clear partnership between employers and employees.

Most importantly, Fohrell noted that hospitals, other healthcare facilities, and physicians began preventative steps to limit COVID-19 exposure to employees, patients, and visitors. Masks were obtained, social distancing was observed, and visitation was limited. For years, it has been said that the best injury is the one that never occurs. In the COVID-19 situation, Fohrell noted that “the best treatment for COVID-19 was to avoid it altogether.”

We asked Fohrell if he had any recommendations or assessments as a result of representing employers during this difficult COVID-19 time. He offered four pieces of advice for employers:

  1. Employers should utilize the experience and claims handling expertise of companies such as Inspirien and HWCF. Employers pay premiums for this service and should not hesitate to take advantage of it.
  2. Employers, regardless of the type of injury, should immediately report workers’ compensation injuries, claims, accidents, or allegations, to their workers’ compensation provider. The sooner Inspirien and HWCF learn of a potential claim, the more quickly they can react and make certain that injured workers with valid claims are given the most appropriate medical care.
  3. Employers should pay attention to existing and potential laws which might directly affect their facility, whether it be medical, reimbursement, or other contemplated changes in the law. Although the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act has seen little changes since 1992, there have been numerous changes in the law due to Alabama Appellate Court decisions. Attending seminars and other educational programs offered by Inspirien and HWCF is a great way for an employer to stay updated as to current laws.
  4. Employers should continue to maintain dynamic and proactive safety programs. Preventing job injuries can be complex. Historical safety requirements have established drug-free workplace areas, fall-prevention programs, and other requirements ranging from the use of back braces to vehicle safety mandates. For the future, employers should be mindful of new safety concerns associated with viruses such as COVID-19. Only two years ago, very few Americans, other than in a surgery setting, would be seen wearing masks and frequently washing; today, those occurrences have become commonplace.

Ultimately, Fohrell believes that “the best injury, and the best COVID-19 exposure, is the one that does not happen.” Fohrell is working diligently alongside the Inspirien and HWCF team to uphold that endeavor.

For more information about Healthcare Workers Compensation Self-Insurance Fund, please visit www.hwcf.net.