Q: I work for my state government as a first-responder, interacting daily with unmasked members of the public who would cough on me while showing symptoms. Despite having a flu shot and being extremely careful about COVID-19 prevention at home, in April I came down with severe flu-like symptoms. I tested negative for the novel coronavirus a couple days after my symptoms appeared and later tested negative for coronavirus antibodies. My physician said I was likely a false negative.

My symptoms have gotten worse and are typical of what is being reported for COVID-19 “long-haulers” — recurring fever, debilitating fatigue, inability to concentrate, headache, dizziness, body aches and more. I’m being evaluated for chronic fatigue syndrome, but my doctor and other specialists I have seen are convinced that my condition is a direct result of the unidentified viral infection earlier in the year.

My employer has granted me short-term disability. When it runs out, I will be placed on long-term disability at 60% of my current salary. My employment will be terminated, and I will have to join my spouse’s health insurance plan.

I realize I’m fortunate compared to those without access to benefits or insurance. But this illness is devastating enough without the stress of potentially losing my career of 15+ years. If I was exposed to the coronavirus at work and it is the cause of my debilitating illness, are there other routes I should explore, such as workers’ compensation? How problematic is it that I never actually tested positive? What can I do to retain my job or financial security when I finally recover?

A: Two red-hot ironies that sum up the American condition:

1. You have dedicated years of your life to performing a job that may have derailed your career and life as you know it — and yet one of your main concerns is staying gainfully employed.

2. Despite devastating illness, you consider yourself lucky to have access to financial support and health-care coverage thanks to your employment and your marital status.

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I’m not criticizing you, by any means. I’m lamenting a state of existence that demands so much yet compels people to feel grateful for so little.

Elaine Weiss, lead policy analyst for income security and a specialist on workers’ compensation at the National Academy of Social Insurance, sees your story as an example of “why working in this country … for so many people is so precarious.” The coronavirus pandemic has illuminated just how “worker protection systems are inadequate,” says Weiss, and how vulnerable we all are.

Workers’ compensation is designed to provide no-fault support for people injured or sickened because of their work. But aside from known occupational diseases, such as black lung in miners, it’s generally difficult to claim workers’ comp for illness. As Weiss and other NASI colleagues discuss in a recent report, COVID-19 in particular is hard to pin down as job-related because it’s highly contagious, common outside the workplace, and has a long latency period. But some categories of workers have a clear and disproportionate risk of exposure through their jobs.

For this reason, some states have begun lowering the burden of proof for certain categories of workers diagnosed with coronavirus so they can qualify for workers’ comp. These presumptions vary widely by state; some cover only front-line health-care professionals, while others include educators, warehouse workers, retail employees, meatpackers and other vulnerable groups. Of course, the NASI report notes, the more people these policies cover, the higher the burden on state systems.

Unfortunately, these presumptions generally require a confirmed novel coronavirus diagnosis, which you don’t have. Even if you did, says Weiss, you would have a hard time qualifying for workers’ compensation unless your state of employment has adopted a COVID-19 presumption that covers workers in your category.

Still, says Weiss, a workers’ compensation lawyer “might not be a bad place to start.” Often you can get a low- or no-cost consultation to determine whether you have a case worth pursuing. And that lawyer may be able to direct you to other legal resources and specialists who can help you build your case for returning to work with accommodations (if that’s possible) or for securing and protecting your long-term disability benefits. Outside of consulting a lawyer, Weiss recommends checking out the Job Accommodation Network (askjan.org), the National Employment Law Project (nelp.org), and your state’s disability services agency website.

And, of course, stay involved with your doctors — not only so they can document your eligibility for job accommodations or benefits, but also because right now, your health should be your top priority.

Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)
Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)