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After COVID-19 Infection, Workers Say They'll 'Never Be The Same'

Corrections officer Sean Howard spoke to reporters about COVID-19-related workers' compensation in a Zoom call on Thursday, March 11. He and labor advocates want the state to help infected essential workers recover lost wages.
Connecticut AFL-CIO (Screengrab)
Corrections officer Sean Howard spoke to reporters about COVID-19-related workers' compensation in a Zoom call on Thursday, March 11. He and labor advocates want the state to help infected essential workers recover lost wages.

Essential workers infected by the coronavirus want Connecticut’s workers’ compensation system updated to meet their needs.

“We kept our facilities going despite the risk, because our communities depend on us,” said Sean Howard, a corrections officer at the Cheshire Correctional Institution.

At least 3,100 workers’ compensation claims have been filed in Connecticut stemming from coronavirus infection since the pandemic began a year ago. But many who have filed may find themselves ineligible because of certain provisions of the law.

Last summer, Gov. Ned Lamont extended a lifeline to some employees, making them eligible for workers’ compensation payments if they worked in person, even if they couldn’t prove they were infected at work. But the eligibility window was short. Essential employees could only claim benefits if they got sick between March 10 and May 20, 2020.

Howard, who tested positive in July, and others would benefit from a proposal recently introduced by local lawmakers that would cover any worker testing positive for COVID-19 throughout the entire declared state of emergency brought on by the pandemic.

Howard said he’s still sick and has developed a heart condition, one his cardiologist tells him is probably permanent.

“I can’t even play with my young son like I used to, which is really troublesome,” Howard said. “Clearly, my life will never be the same after COVID-19.”

Howard has filed a claim, which he said is pending.

Virginia Ligi also works at the Cheshire prison. She said she has yet to be compensated for lost wages despite having filed a claim.

“The system is saying we don’t matter by ignoring our workers’ comp claims and long-term impacts on our health and finances,” Ligi said. “We need legislation to make sure that the system actually helps those who have sacrificed and suffered through this pandemic.”

She said the virus put her out of work for three weeks and that it significantly strained her home life as she is the mother of three small children.

Labor advocates like Nathan Shafner, chairman of the workers’ compensation division of the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association, are backing people like Ligi and Howard in the fight for COVID-19-related workers’ compensation.

“Rebuttable presumption is needed now more than ever,” Shafner said.

Rebuttable presumption -- a standard that would put the onus on the employer to prove the infection did not occur at work -- is especially necessary, according to Shafner, because privacy rights may impact employees’ ability to prove they got sick at work.

“It’s one thing to go to work and have a brick hit you on the head or you tripped and fell and hurt your knee, but it’s another thing when you have to go to work and be exposed to a microscopic virus -- and then, being told that you have to leave the workplace, how are you going to show that you had your exposure?” Shafner said.

State Sen. Julie Kushner (D-Danbury), a co-sponsor of the bill Shafner supports, doesn’t want essential workers to be punished for sacrificing their health.

“We know that people were being extremely careful in their home life, and we know that because they had to go to work they were putting themselves at risk and their families as well,” Kushner said.

She said her proposal shifts the burden of proof to the employer: If it’s assumed workers were infected with the coronavirus because of their job, their bosses would have to prove otherwise.

Scott Mesloh has so far missed out on workers’ compensation despite believing he was eligible under the executive order Lamont signed last summer.

“I need this workers’ comp. I need to be able to pay my bills.”

Mesloh, a nurse, said he got COVID-19 after he treated a patient at Natchaug Hospital. He made a claim but it was denied. Mesloh’s union said his employer believes he got sick outside of work.

He got choked up during a Zoom meeting organized to introduce the infected workers to reporters.

“I don’t want to be denied being a human, having done my job and now, not getting what I deserve to get.”

Mesloh said he still has issues nearly a year after his infection. He wore a nasal cannula that administered oxygen during the Zoom call.

The state legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee held a public hearing Thursday that addressed COVID-19-related workers’ compensation. 

Copyright 2021 Connecticut Public Radio

Frankie Graziano joined CPBN in October of 2011 as a sports producer. In addition to reporting for WNPR, Graziano produces feature profiles for CPTV and the web.
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