NJM’s Livingston cautions that workers’ comp legislation tied to COVID-19 could have unintended consequences

Leaders of states both red and blue are vowing to bolster workers’ compensation for those possibly infected with COVID-19 while performing job duties — and New Jersey is no exception.

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) recently introduced legislation that would ease the process by which essential workers could receive workers’ compensation, by eliminating a requirement that those workers prove they contracted the COVID-19 illness at work.

Governors and policymakers in other states have started making similar changes. California’s State Compensation Insurance Fund is already accepting claims by essential workers diagnosed with COVID-19 without them demonstrating they were afflicted with it while working.

Progressive groups have called on Gov. Phil Murphy and the Legislature to take steps to amend requirements for workers to prove where the virus was contracted, citing the difficulty of proving where someone was first afflicted with the highly transmissible respiratory disease.

Outside of having that burden of proof removed by state decree, what rights do individuals already have when they believe they picked up a case of the virus in the workplace?

Mitch Livingston, CEO and president of NJM Insurance Group, explained that, due to the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act, public safety workers — including EMTs, hospital staff, police or fire personnel — already enjoy benefits in seeking workers’ compensation claims related to the virus.

“For them, there’s a presumption that, if they have a medical-related issue, it came from their employment,” he said. “Now, there’s a conversation about taking that presumption and broadening it — across the country — to say anybody who ultimately suffered from COVID-19 was infected at work.”

Even though he’s head of the state’s largest provider of workers’ compensation insurance, Livingston refrained from outright opposition to the state’s legislative maneuvers.

“We leave it largely to the business community as a whole to say whether something is a good or bad idea,” he said. “But our position is, we want transparency as to how much these things cost.”

Without being able to calculate the associated costs of making these claims more easily accessible statewide, Livingston said he’s worried the extra costs will fall on New Jersey businesses that are already struggling financially during the pandemic.

“Everyone needs to have their eyes open when legislation is proposed in a crisis situation,” he said. “Because, sometimes, what seems like the easy solution isn’t, frankly, always the best solution.”

Coping with challenges

Until mid-March, NJM Insurance Group, like many employers, was increasing its options for remote working at what might be called a leisurely pace.

Realistically, said NJM leader Mitch Livingston, about half of the around 2,500 employees of the organization worked maybe once or twice a week from home at the start of the year.

Now that social distancing is the new norm, there are only about 50 employees of that large employee pool physically working in its West Trenton headquarters. Its other two offices, located in Hammonton and Parsippany, are veritable ghost towns.

The few employees still coming into the office regularly deal with mail, such as opening letters, having checks sent out and scanning documents into computer systems, Livingston said.

“So, that was a major change for us in a short period of time — an about two-week period,” Livingston said. “I would say — and this is a tribute to our employees, and we’ve had a lot of long tenured employees — they didn’t miss a beat.”

For the insurance company leader, it has been eye-opening. He said that, even when the pandemic reaches its theoretic end, he doesn’t expect employees to return to working in the office 100% of the time.

“I think this probably gives us the need and opportunity to be more forward-thinking about remote work,” Livingston said. “Everything possible we can make remote, we’ll be pushing in that direction.”

Another eye-opener for Livingston was the amount of former employees clamoring to come back to work to assist the company and its clients during the crisis.

“I’m proud to say I work for that kind of company,” he said. “The people who have worked here for generations have always had that policyholder gene. To have retirees directly contact the CEO by email or letter asking to help in a situation like this — it would be putting them at personal jeopardy to say yes, but it’s very uplifting.”

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