In total, the UK has had 4.2 million positive cases of COVID-19 since March 2020, and it’s estimated that 20 percent of those have suffered with long COVID. The workplace can present a moderate risk for contraction of the illness, leading to some employees attempting to seek compensation from employers for potentially catching the virus at work.
With MPs increasing the pressure on ministers to recognise long COVID as an occupational disease, claims for compensation could become more common in the near future. So, what do employers need to know and how should they face these claims?
What is an occupational illness and can long COVID be classed as one?
When employees are exposed to long-term hazards or strenuous workplace activities, they may develop chronic ailments. Although occupational illnesses can be hard to pinpoint due to unclear cause and effect and latency issues, employers have a duty to protect employees from any hazardous activities.
In recent months, the Government has come under mounting pressure to treat long COVID as an occupational disease. Backed by MPs and the British Medical Association (BMA), the proposal aims to ensure that frontline health workers and other key workers can be compensated for the debilitating effects of the disease.
COVID-19 has already been recognised as an occupational disease in countries like Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, and Spain. With this in mind, employers should be aware of the legal implications if the UK were to follow suit and the potential effects on long COVID compensation claims.
What proof needs to be shown?
As with any other illness, employees may be able to demonstrate that they have long COVID with a doctor’s note, where such a condition is stated. Medical records and treatment plans can also be used, however there is no legal requirement to provide this level of detail to employers.
A more in-depth medical report can be requested by an employer, should they wish to have further clarity and to fully understand the condition, prognosis and any adjustments required.
Can employees claim compensation for long COVID?
For those suffering with long COVID, it will often be difficult to prove that the virus was picked up at the workplace, with causation proving a major barrier to compensation claims. Therefore, employees may not have an automatic right to claim compensation.
Nevertheless, employers shouldn’t dismiss any requests for compensation made by employees suffering from long COVID. The Government could announce that long COVID is to be recognised as an occupational disease, which would provide some backing for sufferers to make compensation claims.
Whilst this may not happen, claims could still be made on other grounds. If the disability test is satisfied (namely, there being a physical or mental impairment that is long term and has a substantial adverse impact on what the person can do day to day), then the equality legislation still needs to be considered – sufferers could potentially argue that they are being treated less favorably due to their disability.
Our blog on disability and making reasonable adjustments considers the practicalities and legal position in relation to such requests and their refusal.
Work with your employees, not against them
There is still much to be studied around COVID-19, however the long-term impacts of the disease are already starting to take hold. Although there’s some uncertainty on how to approach the effects of long COVID, employers should not be too quick to dismiss employees' concerns, and should instead listen to their workforce and be open to compromise. This could take the form of a temporary change in schedule or position that fits the new physical or mental requirements of the employee.
Rollout of the COVID vaccine
As the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out continues at speed, you may also find our guide on preparing your business for the vaccine useful.
If you need advice or guidance on dealing with employees suffering with long COVID, or any other occupational illness, then our employment team can guide you through your responsibilities – contact Rhys Wyborn for guidance and support.
Our employment team is ranked as a Leading Firm in the Legal 500 2021 edition.
Our updated guide to recovery and resilience covers everything you need to navigate your business out of lockdown, unlock your potential and make way for a brighter future. Further advice in relation to COVID-19 can be found on our dedicated coronavirus resource hub.
From inspirational SHMA Talks to informative webinars, we also have lots of educational and entertaining content for life and business. Visit SHMA® ON DEMAND.