Does workers' comp include firefighter's COVID-19? Okla. city council considers case

Stillwater firefighter Randy Blake retired at 44 and underwent a double lung transplant following a battle for his life


Michelle Charles
Stillwater NewsPress

STILLWATER, Okla. — The Stillwater City Council met with City Attorney Kimberly Carnley in executive session Monday to discuss a Workers' Compensation claim filed by former Stillwater firefighter Randy Blake but took no action.

Blake, who retired in July 2021 at age 44, underwent a double lung transplant following a life-threatening battle with COVID-19. He has a case pending in Oklahoma Workers Compensation Court. The claim has not been made public.

The National Conference of State Legislatures explains that "Workers' compensation is designed to benefit both employees and employers by providing reliable insurance coverage with predictable, timely payments and reduced legal costs. Beyond providing medical treatment at no cost to the employee, workers' compensation also provides wage replacement benefits for lost wages resulting from time away from work ... Most states have a dedicated workers' compensation court system where judges make the final decision on claims and benefits awarded."

Although Workers' Compensation doesn't usually cover routine community-transmitted diseases like the common cold or influenza, during the height of the pandemic, 28 states took some action to extend coverage to at least medical personnel and first responders who contracted COVID-19, according to NCSL. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, at least 19 states had policies that said when firefighters and other first responders develop lung and respiratory illnesses, those conditions are presumed to be work-related and covered under workers' compensation.

It isn't clear if that applies to COVID-19. Different states have taken different actions.

In the 2021 legislative session, HB2239 passed both the House and the Senate, providing that a first responder — defined as a police officer, reserve police officer, firefighter or emergency medical technician employed a a city, county, emergency medical services provider or the State of Oklahoma — who tested positive for COVID-19 would be presumed to have contracted the virus during the course of their employment and would be entitled to compensation through the state's Workers' Compensation system.

The provision would have applied to volunteer firefighters as well.

As of May 2022, it had been granted a conference, but had not made it to Gov. Kevin Stitt's desk.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration classifies COVID-19 as a recordable illness if the infection occurred as a result of performing work-related duties. The case must meet certain criteria.

Blake was serving as a Captain with the Stillwater Fire Department in October 2020 when he contracted COVID-19. By mid-November he would be on life support in a Tulsa hospital.

While hospitalized in Tulsa, he was placed on a type of bypass machine for about five weeks that oxygenated his blood, to allow his lungs to rest and recover. Blake also spent seven weeks on a ventilator.

Blake suffered major complications and eventually was forced to travel to Phoenix to undergo a double lung transplant in Feb. 2021.

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(c)2022 the Stillwater NewsPress 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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