In Iowa, compensability of a virus such as COVID-19 would be most likely be evaluated as an occupational disease. Occupational diseases developed within the course and scope of employment are deemed compensable pursuant to Iowa Code Ch. 85A.
The Iowa Supreme Court has recognized that in order to prove causation in an occupational disease case, the employee must establish the following: 1) the disease must be causally related to the exposure to harmful conditions of the field of employment and 2) those harmful conditions must be more prevalent in the employment concerned than in everyday life or in other occupations. McSpadden v. Big Ben Coal Co., 288 N.W.2d 181 (Iowa 1980). Iowa Code 85A.12 further defines the employee’s burden of proof. The employee must prove that the diseases was “due to the nature of an employment in which the hazards of such disease actually exist, and which hazards are characteristic thereof and peculiar to the trade, occupation, or process, or employment, and such disease actually arises out of the employment.” (Iowa Code 85A.12).
It appears unlikely that any employee, perhaps with the limited exception of medical professionals treating patients with COVID-19, could establish both that COVID-19 exposure was related to their field of employment and that COVID-19 was prevalent in their employment compared to everyday life or other occupations. Even then, those infectious disease medical professionals would have to establish that the exposure occurred at work as opposed to anywhere else outside of work where they might have been exposed. Therefore, it is unlikely that COVID-19 exposure at work would be a compensable occupational disease under the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Act.
The Iowa Supreme Court has also recognized a very limited exception in which exposure to infectious disease can be considered a workers’ compensation “injury,” as opposed to an occupational disease, that could apply to exposure to COVID-19. The applicability depends heavily on the facts and circumstances surrounding the exposure. Exposure considered a workers’ compensation “injury,” as opposed to an occupational disease, is advantageous to the employee because it only requires the employee to prove that the exposure occurred while the employee was engaged in work duties and does not require the employee to establish that the type of exposure is peculiar to their profession.
In Perkins v. HEA of Iowa Inc., 651 N.W.2d 40 (Iowa 2002), the employee was working as a nurse at a retirement facility. She was exposed to Hepatitis C when a shunt on a resident’s leg exploded spraying blood all over the resident’s room impacting employee on the mouth, face and eyes. The Iowa Supreme Court concluded that the manner by which the employee was exposed to Hepatitis C met the definition of “injury” and not occupational disease within the terms of the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Act. The Supreme Court concluded that infectious disease can be an accidental injury in terms of the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Act if the germs gain entrance through a scratch or through unexpected or abnormal exposure to infection.
It should be noted that based on Perkins that simple exposure to COVID-19 while engaged in work duties is not sufficient to establish an “injury” as opposed to an occupational disease under Iowa law. The exposure would have to occur by some unexpected or abnormal circumstances before it could be considered a compensable workers’ compensation injury.