Since the start of the pandemic, much of the discourse regarding COVID-19 and workers’ compensation has centered around questions of compensability—that is, under what circumstances contraction of COVID-19 can qualify as a compensable workers’ compensation claim, what types of benefits are available for covered employees, and what types of defenses employers may have at their avail. As more and more employers consider and implement mandatory vaccination and booster policies, additional questions have arisen regarding the fairly novel—though not entirely COVID-19-exclusive—issue of the compensability of vaccination and booster side effects.
The most common side effects associated with COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters, according to the CDC’s website here, are pain and swelling in the arm where the shot was administered and tiredness, headaches, muscle pain, chills, fever, and nausea throughout the rest of the body. Again according to the CDC, not everyone experiences all or even any of these side effects, and even those who do should feel back to normal after a few days. The CDC website also notes that rare cases of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and pericarditis (inflammation of the outer lining of the heart) have been reported following the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and mentions “severe allergic reactions” to any of the COVID-19 vaccines as a possibility. Of course, studies regarding the long-term side effects are ongoing and a wide range of opinions regarding possible long-term and short-term side effects can be found depending on where you look.
Even for just those common side effects lasting only a few days, there can be workers’ compensation implications. Certainly, an allergic reaction, even a minor one, can qualify as a compensable medical condition; the question for COVID-19 vaccine and booster side effects is whether it they are sufficiently connected to the employment to constitute a workers’ compensation claim. That question comes down to the nature and circumstances of the vaccination. For employees who voluntarily decide on their own to get vaccinated, there is no real connection to the employment and therefore no claim. For employees whose jobs require them to be vaccinated as part of a mandatory-vaccination policy, however, there is a direct link to their employment and there will likely be a compensable claim for adverse side effects to the vaccine. Then there is the gray area in between—employers encouraging or even offering vaccinations to their employees, but not strictly requiring them. Generally, if the vaccination is not mandatory, even if offered by the employer and administered right on the premises, side effects will likely not be compensable unless the employee can show that the vaccination was somehow made “basically” mandatory by the actions of their employer, requiring a very fact-specific analysis.
It is not all bad news for mandatory-vaccination employers in Ohio, however. Based on current evidence, it seems that the vast majority of potential claims for COVID-19 vaccine side effects will be fairly insignificant in terms of the financial exposure to employers, whether directly as self-insured employers or via impact to BWC premiums for state-fund employers. It appears that most of these side effects require little to no medical attention, with medical bills usually limited to a single hospital visit if there is any treatment at all. Moreover, for claims in Ohio, there is no compensable lost time if the claimant is out of work for less than seven days, while the most common side effects typically last no more than a few days. As such, for Ohio employers deciding whether to implement mandatory vaccination policies, the workers’ compensation exposure for vaccine side effects should not be a crucial factor in the analysis.