When it comes to automatic presumptions, it has been a scary few years for employers and workers’ compensation insurers. A plethora of new laws mostly regarding first responders have been passed in recent years extending presumptions, rebuttable and otherwise, for a plethora of illnesses and ailments purportedly related to their job. The problem is, in a society that insists on “following the science” for just about everything, the only science that justifies some of these new laws seems to be of the political variant. The Covid pandemic only exacerbated the issue, with presumptions related to that commonly communicable disease being extended in some cases to front line workers, greatly expanding liabilities for employers. And just when you thought it was safe to go back in the woods – metaphorically speaking – a new bill in New York proposes even more things employers might be liable for. 

And with this bill, the woods are the last place you will want your employees to be in.

A state lawmaker wants to extend workers’ compensation coverage to workers who contract Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses while working outdoors or treating animals. Sen. John Mannion’s proposal, Bill S8867, would add tick-borne diseases and illnesses to the list of occupational diseases that would qualify as a payable benefit for disabilities sustained under the Workers’ Compensation Law in New York. It further declares that a “Disability” includes disability caused by or in connection with Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases.

The bill is still in committee. It must pass the Senate and Assembly before it can be signed it into law.

Now, specifically this is not being called a presumption bill. It is simply seeking to expand the definition of covered occupational diseases. But since the bill explicitly states that Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses are considered compensable in the case of any workers who engage in outdoor activity or treatment of animals, it could have fairly broad impact. And how does an employer know if that disease was contracted at work, or at a picnic over the weekend? Did the infection occur while working in the woods, or while walking through a tree-lined parking lot on a day off?

Could an employee’s own back yard contain that same danger? Of course, it could.

As far as politicians are concerned, the actual source probably doesn’t matter. Even a quote from State Senator Mannion may hint to that reality. He emphasized during the announcement of his bill that Lyme disease can be quite lengthy and debilitating. He said, “I’ve seen teachers use up all their sick time and be forced to go on unpaid leave because of Lyme disease.”

Right. But he didn’t say that they contracted Lyme disease in the course of their employment. But they still need someone – anyone – to pick up the tab. 

But then again, the true cause is probably not the point, especially when it comes to common diseases in the environment. In these cases, we apparently cannot see the forest for the trees.

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