Uptick in WC Claims, Litigation Over Virus Outbreaks Anticipated by Corporate Executives

Nancy Grover

Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – Organizations that were flying blind seeking ways to keep their employees safe and businesses running 15 months ago are now trying to create strategic plans to safely return employees to the workplace. With anticipated increases in workers’ compensation claims due to remote work and litigation over virus outbreaks within organizations, those in organizational C-Suites are addressing a variety of complex scenarios.

“What’s the deal with vaccines? Are they required, are they not required? Are you going to disclose that people are vaccinated or not?” asked Tom Warsop, CEO of One Call. “It’s a really tough subject right now.”

Questions surrounding vaccines are among the hottest topics facing corporate executives as they look at bringing workers back from the pandemic. Warsop joined high ranking officials from American Airlines, myMatrixx and Charter Communications during a virtual session as part of the National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference. ‘Closed for business to Open for Resilience’ explored the speakers’ perspectives on mapping the path forward for workers’ compensation.

‘Multiple Iterations’

“We had no framework, no infrastructure to go off figuring how can we keep our workers safe through this pandemic and really put proper and appropriate procedures and protocols in place to mitigate the transmission in the workplace,” said Jennifer Saddy, managing director of Absence Management for American Airlines. “So we did have to go through multiple iterations and really evaluate and stand up new policies and processes we didn’t have before.”

The company, for example procured 27 million masks. It also implemented two-week paid leave for employees who been exposed to or contracted the virus themselves.

“The good news is we are starting to see that [airline] traffic pick back up; but now how do we keep those important safety processes and protocols in place that we started last year. How do we maintain social distancing when you have an increase in folks coming through the airport, which is good news,” Saddy said. “And some of the other safety precautions we have in place became more important such as the mask wearing, the hygiene, the cleaning and disinfecting that we’re doing both onboard the aircraft as well as in the airport environment.”

Also going through many iterations for dealing with the pandemic was Charter Communications. “Our experience was slightly different in that not only did we have to react and respond to the pandemic but our demand for services was about to increase substantially as people moved to work from home and schools were transitioning to remote learning,” said Dave Taylor, senior director of Workers’ Compensation for Charter. “So our thought was ‘we have to prioritize employee safety at the same time without disrupting business continuity.’”

Two-thirds of Charter’s workforce transitioned to remote work. For the remaining employees in the office, the company implemented social distancing, where no one sits next to or across from one another. There are limitations as to where in buildings employees can go and restrictions in elevators.

myMatrixx moved 77,000 employees to remote work “in about a week’s time without missing a blip,” said CEO Mike Cirillo. “Now we’re a year and a half in, we’re 100 percent remote and things are still humming.”

The speakers reported increases in productivity, employee engagement and morale as employees have worked from home — even those that reduced their workforces.

“We did have to make some tough decisions right away because our business was impacted dramatically from a volume perspective downward in the beginning of the pandemic,” said One Call’s Warsop. “It’s largely recovered now but we had to make some tough calls and we did have to furlough quite a few people.”

The company established a charitable foundation and seeded it “with a lot of money” to help affected employees supplement their incomes. “We’ve continued that even as the business recovered and we’ve had about 50 or 60 people that for one reason or another needed help,” Warsop said. “What’s been amazing to me is that our team has stepped up too. We’ve got people asking ‘can I contribute to that foundation to help,’ ‘can I donate my PTO so that people who need it can take it.” And t’s been absolutely incredible to watch what positive things have come out of this.”

Potential Threats

“Three things we’re seeing in our own team members and clients, happening at the same time,” said Warsop. “We’re seeing absenteeism generally is up, and particularly I’m talking about unplanned absenteeism, when somebody calls in that morning and says ‘I can’t do my job today,’ or ‘I’ve got to do something,’ That is definitely up; it’s a widespread issue.”

Also on the increase is the number of employees taking various leaves, such as under the Family and Medical Leave Act, illness leaves, and intermittent leaves. “You have less notice of those absences and that can be challenging when you’re trying to manage the workload,” Warsop said.

What has not increased is the use of paid time off. In fact, it’s decreased among One Call and many of its clients. “It’s not universally true but I hear it a lot and that is really interesting because it seems to fly in the face of the other points,” Warsop said. “What I think is maybe happening is people are having more trouble … differentiating between working hours and non-working hours, because you’re in the same place.”

Warsop believes many people have found a flexibility in remote work and have therefore chosen not to take time off.

Another potential challenge for employers is an anticipated increase in workers’ compensation claims related to remote work. A recent survey of more than 1,200 at-home workers released by Chubb found that 41 percent have experienced new pain in their necks, shoulders or backs.

“One of the things that I think is fairly obvious is that not everyone has an optimal setup in their remote work environment,” Warsop said. “We hear it from our clients too, there are a lot of back pain and cricked necks and those sorts of things. So I don’t know exactly how this is going to unfold but I’m absolutely certain there are going to be more injuries and ultimately more claims coming from those types of issues.”

“Unfortunately, folks are sitting on the couch or laying in bed or doing what they normally do, whereas in an office environment you can control a lot of those things,” Taylor added. “There is anticipation that though we have not seen that uptick just yet we are probably going to throughout this year and perhaps even into next year.”

Another concern is potential litigation. “There will be an outbreak [of the virus] in an office,” Cirillo said.

“What happens when there is that outbreak that Mike was talking about, who’s liable?” Warsop added. “And not just who’s liable but who’s going to sue whom? Because we know it’s going to happen. It will happen. Somebody’s going to get sick, and going to say ‘it’s because Mike Cirillo came to my office and he hadn’t been vaccinated, it’s his fault, I’m going to sue.’ We know that will happen. Where does that go? I have no idea. And so we need to find a way to work together as employers and citizens to figure out how to deal with this and try to cut off some of this complexity.”

One strategy voiced by the speakers was the use of vaccines for employees. But the issue is fraught with emotions on both sides. Employers are grappling with what policies to implement.

“What’s the requirement going to be?” asked myMatrixx’ Cirillo. “We’re seeing companies across the board saying vaccines will not be a mandate coming back to the office. I’ve seen others that have said it will be a mandate. That’s one that’s still undecided and I’m sure there will be more regulatory advising as well.”

Like many organizations American Airlines is offering incentives to encourage employees to get vaccinated. “Those that get vaccinated by August 31 will get an extra day of vacation next year as well as a $50 gift card,” said Saddy. “And we’ve also done a lot of work bringing it onsite to our team members, knowing the schedules that they work. That is probably one of the quickest ways we can get them vaccinated.”

Phasing Back In

“Sometime after Labor Day we want to get back to 100 percent [in person],” Taylor said. “At this point there is no plan to change any of the extra safety measures. All the extra cleaning, the seating, all the extra space where nobody is sitting next to each other or across from each other — that’s still going to stay in place, probably through the rest of the year until we’re absolutely certain that the pandemic has phased itself out.”

One thing many organizations have learned through the pandemic is the importance of communicating appropriately. The panelists said that should be continued as the pandemic eventually comes to an end.

“I think phasing these safety protocols out is just as important as when we stood them up and standing them up correctly and doing a good job on it. How we phase them out, how we communicate to our team members about phasing them out and when we phase them out will be equally critical,” Saddy said. “We don’t want the perception to our customers or team members that us pulling back on any of these things in any way means that we have any less of a safe and healthy environment for anybody traveling or going to the airport or on our aircraft.”

“With the uncertainty that still lies ahead the optics of what we do are critically important and the way around that is communication,” Taylor said. “So it’s not just that we need to do things for certain reasons it’s that we need to explain them very thoroughly.”

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