California governor Gavin Newsome’s recent executive order has put many businesses on edge by stating that workers who are shown to have COVID-19 may claim Worker’s Comp benefits if they recently worked on-site. The order allows Worker Comp cases to “presume” that the individual contracted COVID at work unless the employer can “rebut” this presumption. California companies are understandably concerned about a huge spike in worker’s comp insurance premiums at a time when they are already facing dire challenges.

As more states take a similar approach (several states allow COVID-infected workers to be covered under Workers Comp if they are primary care givers, police, or other “frontline” workers), more and more companies are going to have to develop proactive plans for dealing with the repercussions of the COVID worker’s comp presumptions.

The insurance industry is also worried about the practical implications of these new guarantees. “Maintaining proof of a causal connection that a covered injury or disease was contracted in the workplace is essential for a stable no-fault workers compensation system for employers and employees alike.” says David Samson, President and CEO of the APCIA.

How can companies prove that an individual didn’t contract the virus at work, and how do they trust an individual’s recent contact claims? Digital contact tracing is becoming the buzzword answer.

Unlike worker proximity alerts which the tell workers when they are too close to another, digital contact tracing also documents all worker interactions over the last two weeks, two months, or however long the digital tracing system has been up and running. Workers test positive for COVID-19 will have a record of who they did, and did not, come into contact with while on site, as well as a gradient of actual exposure time. This information could be the key to accurately rebutting a presumption.

What is digital contact tracing and how does it work?

Currently, digital contact tracing uses a wearable device (wristband, ID-tag, badge, or smart phone) that detects an individual’s position with respect to others who are also wearing the device. Various technologies can be used, with BLE (Bluetooth low energy), WiFi being the most common. Whatever technology, it must be accurate enough to differentiate between distances of, say, six feet and twelve feet. The devices then sync their interaction records with a central database over the air or by direct plugin and upload.

Digital contact tracing is just a part of a company’s comprehensive COVID-19 response plan — but it’s an important one. A digital contact tracing method is faster and less prone to subjective data than manual, interview-based contact tracing where interviewers ask questions of workers regarding their contact history. Automated contact tracing reports can be used as a means to delineate who gets tested and who doesn’t. Algorithms can be set to calculate the risk of exposure. Various “tiers” or risk categories can be established based on the contact tracing reports:

  1. Tier 1 = workers with greater than a 75% chance of COVID exposure at work
  2. Tier 2 = workers with between a 30% and 75% chance of COVID exposure at work
  3. Tier 3 = workers who have less than a 30% chance of COVID exposure at work

The technology and process involved in successful worker contact tracing will evolve rapidly in the coming months as companies push back to work and new exposure cases pop up. In order for digital contact tracing information to hold up against a worker’s comp claim, we recommend the following:

  • All workers must be wearing a contact tracing device, otherwise if there are exceptions, it will be much more difficult to prove that the subject worker did not come into contact with the exceptions.
  • The system must be demonstrably accurate. Proximity tests and calibration studies, as well as other accuracy-related data should be made available for scrutiny and evaluation.
  • Use the best of both methods: For cases where digital tracings shows prolonged time in close proximity to another worker, make sure you follow up with interview questions to identify the exact nature of the encounter (were both wearing face shields or masks? Did anyone sneeze during the encounter?). The digital data screening will allow you to quickly focus on a small subset of “encounters” that need to be followed up.
  • Data Security: cyber security and other measures must be in place to protect the data from contamination. Contact tracing data is only useful if it can be trusted.