New York Teachers Return to Work Amidst COVID

As teachers, administrators and staff return back to work this fall many are wondering what their legal rights are, should they be exposed to COVID-19. Schools will be the latest establishments to open their doors and many feel that there is much still unknown and therefore, teachers will be left vulnerable to possible exposure to the Coronavirus. Most New York Districts have been left to formulate their own reopening plans, leaving teachers to feel unprotected by the state and without any idea of what could transpire.

Any employee who sustains an injury or occupational injury is eligible to file for Workers’ Compensation.  Workers’ compensation is a no-fault insurance policy for workplace injuries. This allows employees to collect compensation for lost wages and medical treatment without suing their employer. New York teachers exposed to COVID-19 due their employment need to know what their rights are.

The big question is: Will the New York Workers’ Compensation system cover COVID in the event a teacher is exposed and tests positive?

The difficulty with COVID Workers’ Compensation claims is proving the exposure happened at work and not elsewhere. New York teachers have history on their side as in 1961 a New York appeals court granted an award of workers’ compensation benefits to a teacher that contracted mumps during an epidemic and subsequently suffered from encephalitis due to her close contact with her students at work during the outbreak. Some states, like California, have enacted COVID-19 presumptions bills, that assume the virus was contracted at work if they were working at the time of their diagnosis, but such bills are still pending in New York.

New York City Public School Teachers

Unlike the rest of New York’s teachers, New York City public school teachers are not covered under New York’s workers’ compensation system. NYC public school teachers are members of the UFT union and are covered instead by “injury in the line of duty” provisions. This reimburses medical expenses and required paid time off for recovery, much like traditional workers’ compensation.

Additional Coverages and Accommodations

Under the federal act Families First Coronavirus Response Act “FFCRA” and New York’s paid family leave for COVID all school employees may be entitled to take a leave of absence for themselves or illness of a family member or necessary childcare during the COVID pandemic.

If you are a teacher with a disability or compromised immune system that could create a higher risk for contracting the virus and possibly resulting in major health complications, you may be able to ask for special accommodations. Pregnant women and those at a higher risk due to age may also request for accommodations. Whether the school honors these requests have been on a case to case basis.

Reporting School safety issues

Those concerned about school safety can report these concerns to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA.) OSHA administers federal and state workplace safety laws and will investigate reports and issue citations to those deemed unsafe according to the regulations. Reports have been made that OSHA has not stepped up during the COVID pandemic, but it would be wise to have documentation should a lawsuit commence.

Workers’ Compensation typically limits employees from suing their employers however teachers may be able to recover losses if gross negligence is shown. During COVID such cases have been improper social distancing, failing to disclose positive cases among the staff or failure to provide proper PPE. Teachers should take extra precautions against COVID-19 and be aware of what their legal rights are while returning to the classroom this year.