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November 4, 2021

Why some frontline workers could lose their accidental death benefits

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    Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, some organizations decided to make frontline workers eligible for accidental death benefits if they passed away as a result of Covid-19—but workers could now lose those benefits unless they follow certain safety protocols, Michelle Andrews writes for Kaiser Health News.

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    Accidental death benefits for frontline workers

    In addition to regular life insurance policies, employers often offer workers in high-risk occupations extra insurance coverage that pays out if the employee is killed in a job-related accident, Andrews writes. Generally, workers not following safety protocols—such as wearing safety equipment like a bulletproof vest or a helmet—at the time of their death could be denied accidental death benefits, according to John Ehrlich, the national lead consultant on group life insurance at Willis Towers Watson.

    According to Andrews, these "line-of-duty" or "accidental death and dismemberment" policies have not traditionally paid out when a worker dies of a disease, largely because it can't be proven whether the affected employee contracted the deadly infection at work or another location.

    However, this changed for some frontline workers during the pandemic. According to Mark DeBofsky, a lawyer who represents workers in benefit disputes at DeBofsky Sherman Casciari Reynolds, some frontline workers became eligible for accidental death benefits because of the presumption that the virus was contracted at work.

    For example, in concert with labor unions representing transit workers, officials with New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in April 2020 reached an agreement that workers who died of Covid-19 would be eligible to receive a $500,000 accidental death benefit, Andrews writes. While the program was originally set to end after one year, it has been extended to continue through the end of 2021 for all eligible workers.

    "No other workforce in the city, probably the country, secured what [the Transport Workers Union] secured: a $500,000 payment from the employer to the families of workers who died after getting Covid," said Pete Donohue, a union spokesperson. "We look at it that during a terrible time, we got [the benefit] for people."

    Workers who don't follow safety protocols risk losing benefits

    With the advent of widely available vaccines for Covid-19, many unvaccinated workers have faced major financial consequences—including paying more for health insurance, being placed on unpaid leave, and losing their jobs—and now, they could face another: losing their accidental death benefits.

    For instance, MTA in June changed its policy on accidental death benefits as the organization struggled to get more of its roughly 67,000 workers vaccinated. Under the new policy, families of transit workers who die of Covid-19 and are unvaccinated at the time of their death will no longer be eligible to receive the $500,000 death benefit—a move DeBofsky called "needlessly cruel."

    Since the start of the pandemic, MTA reported that 173 of its workers have died from Covid-19. However, only five of those deaths have occurred after the MTA policy change took effect this summer. MTA stated that the agency was "not aware they have been vaccinated."

    Separately, New Bedford, Mass. Mayor Jon Mitchell, voiced his opposition to accidental death benefits for unvaccinated city employees, stating that "it would be inappropriate to extend accidental death benefits where the employee refused to take a vaccine that had been found to be nearly 100% effective."

    Citing the shift in policy, Carol Harnett, president of the Council for Disability Awareness, said that "there's a frustration level [among employers], particularly at this point when these vaccines are fully approved." She added, "You're trying to protect yourselves and your employees, both from themselves and the general public." (Andrews, Kaiser Health News, 11/3)

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