Teaching is not thought of as a hazardous job, but 120 teachers in Stamford, Connecticut have filed workers compensation claims due to mold exposure that effects half of the buildings in their district.
Mold is a relatively common hazard for white collar employees. When mold infests a building, it is common to have many employees affected. Mold is sometimes visible other times it can be hidden in insulation. Mold exposure is typically thought of leading to hayfever like allergic symptoms, but it can also lead to symptoms like chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome and weight gain. About 25 percent of people are especially sensitive to mold and that sensitivity can be tested for by doctors.
In Nebraska, an employee just needs to show that an occupational factor or factors were a contributing factor to the injury. An employee exposed to mold in Nebraska should be able to collect workers’ compensation benefits for mold exposure even if they had pre-existing allergies or mold sensitivity. But other states have more stringent causation standards, so it could be harder to receive workers’ compensation benefits for mold exposure in those states.
The mass mold exposure by teachers in Stamford, Connecticut raises many interesting legal issues outside of workers’ compensation.
Challenges of collective action in the workplace
The first issue is the question of collective action when 120 employees are injured by a common hazard. The teachers are fortunate to be represented by a union. A union can be helpful in accommodating work injuries and helping employees gather information that can prove their workers compensation case. In a case of mold exposure, it is important to gather information about mold levels so doctors have sufficient foundation to relate symptoms to mold exposure. A union is helpful in getting such information.
But public sector unions are under attack by recent and upcoming Supreme Court litigation. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) gives nonunion employees some right to act in a group or collective manner about the terms and conditions of their employment. But that right may have been limited by the Epic case decided by the Supreme Court at the end of the 2018 case.
Fortunately claiming workers compensation is a protected activity in most states. That means employees facing a common cause of injury would be protected from retaliation for pursuing workers compensation claims. Some states, like Nebraska, also have whistleblower statutes that would protect employees from reporting hazardous work conditions.
In cases where many people have suffered a common harm, they can file a collective or class action case. I don’t know if Connecticut allows for such claims in workers compensation. But a collective or class case in workers’ compensation could be a simpler and less epxenseive to handle workers’ compensation cases involving mass mold exposure.
Third party claims
Collective or class litigation is generally allowed in cases of mass negligence. Fault usually doesn’t matter in workers compensation, but if a third party is at fault for a work injury the employee (and in Nebraska the employer as well) can sue that third party. A third-party case usually gives an employer some right of subrogation that allows them to be repaid some of what they paid the employee in workers’ compensation benefits.
In a case of mass mold exposure employees and employers could be looking to sue a landlord or builder for negligent construction or maintenance. But if s third party didn’t cause the injury, employees are stuck with defined workers compensation benefits and employers have no hope of being repaid for workers compensation benefits they paid to employees.
The downside to s third party claim is that they usually require more expense to prove negligence. In my experience handling individual mold exposure workers compensation cases, the value of the claims usually would not justify the expense of third-party litigation. But if enough employees are joined in a case, it would make sense economically to pursue a negligence case.