Survivor benefits and HELSA in Washington

Alysha Van Zante

The Health Emergency Labor Standards Act (“HELSA”)[1] applies to a litany of listed frontline workers, changes the exposure standard to establish an occupational disease, and more. Novel legal issues are arising as HELSA is being implemented. Which benefits are owed when you learn a frontline worker (as defined by HELSA) has died due to COVID-19? Here is a step-by-step guide to navigating that process:

  1. Gather the required documentation to process the claim:
    1. Washington Beneficiary Application for Claim Benefits. The application can be found here. The required supporting documentation is listed in the application and includes:
      i.   Death certificate and autopsy, if performed
      ii.  Marriage certificate or Declaration of Registered Domestic Partnership;
      iii. Birth certificate(s) of children;
      iv. Letters of guardianship or custody order;
      v.  Custody papers for stepchildren;
      vi. Proof of full-time enrollment in accredited school of children between ages 18 and 23.
    2. Medical records if the supporting documentation with the application does not provide enough information to process the claim.
    3. Confirm the worker is a frontline worker, as defined by law.
  2.  If the claim is compensable, pay the following benefits:

    Casondra Albrecht

    1. ­Time-loss and/or loss of earning power. HELSA eliminated the three-day exclusion for time loss benefits when a worker’s disability does not continue for a period of fourteen consecutive calendar days from the date of injury pursuant to RCW 51.32.090. Instead, pay time loss from the day after (i) the first date the worker missed work due to symptoms of the infectious or contagious disease; (ii) the date the worker was quarantined by a medical provider or public health official; or (iii) the date the worker received a positive test result confirming contraction of the infectious or contagious disease.[2] However, time-loss benefits will not be paid for the same period of time if another federal or state program provided compensation for time missed from work due to the disease (such as the Families First Coronavirus Recovery Act program in 2020).[3] The worker may also be entitled to loss of earning power benefits if the injured worker was off work for claim-related reasons prior to their death
    2. Immediate death benefit payment. An immediate payment is due when “death is related to an industrial injury or occupational disease.” This amount is based on the date of death and the average monthly wage in Washington for the same year. The amount is updated every year on July 1st. Immediate death benefit payment amounts can be found here.
    3. Burial costs. Pay up to the full amount of covered burial costs pursuant to RCW 51.32.050(1). This amount is based on the date of death and the average monthly wage in Washington for the same year. The amount is updated every year on July 1st.  Burial payment rates can be found here. Also note RCW 51.32.050 says “the expenses” of burial. Burial benefits are not an automatic payment, but instead are tied to actual charges. Either pay the funeral home up to the full amount of the benefit or reimburse the beneficiary up to this amount.
    4. Claim-related medical costs. Pay claim-related bills per the typical timelines, once the bills are received.
    5. Survivor Pension. Pay a survivor pension pursuant to RCW 51.32.050(2)-(7) after the Department of Labor and Industries issues a pension order. The survivor pension will be set up just like any other pension.

Employers and claims examiners should diligently evaluate each positive test result and any suspected COVID-19 death to ensure compliance with the new HELSA rules. As long as COVID-19 continues to be a widespread threat under public health emergency, HELSA will provide expansive protection to frontline employees.

You can learn more about the substance of HELSA and SB 5190 (providing health care workers with presumptive benefits during a public health emergency) here.

The attorneys at Reinisch Wilson Weier PC are here to help if you have any questions about the new law or how to handle claims involving COVID-19.

Click here to download a pdf.

[1] Washington SB 5115, signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee on May 11, 2021.

[2] SB 5115 § 1(4)(a).

[3] SB 5115 § 1(4)(b).