Last month in a trial, I heard an HR manager testify about something I’ve only read about on workers’ compensation insurance blogs, sanitizing or wiping down surfaces to prevent COVID-19 as part of a light or alternate duty assignment for injured worker.
While wiping down surfaces surely doesn’t spread COVID, most public health officials in the United States and abroad discount the importance of wiping down surfaces in preventing the spread of COVID. COVID is primarily spread through aerosol droplets from activities like breathing, talking, sneezing, etc.
So why are some employers pushing cleaning and sanitizing as light duty or alternate duty?
One, light duty assignments are always a good way for employers to reduce workers’ compensation costs. This explains the rise of so-called “voluntold light duty” jobs where employers volunteer injured workers for community service jobs. But unlike “voluntold light duty” employers receive financial benefits for placing employees in sanitizing jobs. In order to be eligible for PPP assistance, businesses need to maintain 75 percent of their payroll. Sanitizing jobs help businesses meet that requirement.
I think making workers do meaningless work is just an arbitrary exercise of power by employers. But sanitizing jobs pose unique risk. Cleaning chemicals can be hazardous to touch and inhale. I represented an employee who had to go the ER after using a restroom that was filled with chemical vapors from cleaning agents. Excessive chemicals could worsen air quality for workers who aren’t involved in sanitizing work. Having inexperienced workers using chemical may pose risks to themselves and others.
Supporters of light duty assignments argue that employees are better off working light duty because they maintain the employment relationship. That’s true to the extent that benefits like health insurance depend on earning wages. But reliance on employers for health insurance benefits just reinforces how employers can force employees to return to work after a work injury.
But there are other problems with light-duty jobs like “sanitizing” or retail “greeting”. They are temporary jobs reserved for workers are still recovering from injuries. In practice, this excludes many workers. Employers with light duty work programs tend to be high injury employers. High injury employers tend to be either self-insured or have high deductible insurance. As such, high injury employers want to press employees to reach maximum medical improvement or MMI as soon as possible. Hence the use of nurse case managers, occupational medicine clinics and paid examiners to push injured workers back to work whether they are ready or not.
But as soon as an employee is deemed to reach MMI, they are ineligible for light duty jobs like sanitizer or greeter. This leaves many workers in a kind of purgatory where they are still effectively unable to work but technically employed without receiving wages or benefits.