Over 15,000 claims were filed with B.C.'s workplace regulator regarding COVID-19 exposures since the first case of the virus was recorded in the province three years ago.
According to data from WorkSafeBC, which adjudicates and provides compensation for workers who get ill or injured on the job, health-care workers filed the most COVID-19-related claims.
The agency found 87 per cent of COVID-19 claims met their criteria for workers' compensation since 2020, with a 94 per cent acceptance rate in 2022.
That amounts to claims from nearly 8,500 health-care workers in total since the pandemic began, according to the agency.
No. of COVID-19 claims that met WorkSafeBC's claim criteria
The large volume underscores the strain health-care workers are facing, says a union official and an advocate. One lawyer also says it highlights the rights of workers and employers as the pandemic continues to claim lives in B.C.
"I was quite surprised to see the volume of claims," said Chris Drinovz, an employment lawyer at KSW Lawyers. "Not only the number of claims, but the number of allowed claims."
B.C. sectors with most registered COVID-19 claims
WorkSafeBC says they took around 23 days on average to adjudicate the claims.
Drinovz says the fast and high rate of acceptance is relatively uncommon for the agency. When cases involve mental health problems at work, for example, they often necessitate testimonies and extended investigations.
He thinks the rate could be explained by COVID-19 being added to Schedule 1 of the Workers' Compensation Act, which includes diseases and infections assumed to be contracted at work.
"In the normal course, like if I suffer a back injury, for example, the burden is on the worker to show that the injury was caused by the workplace," he said.
"What happened during the heart of COVID, there was legislation that came out which added COVID-19 to Schedule 1.
"Any disease or injury in Schedule 1, there's an automatic presumption that if you get it and you report, it's presumed to be work-related."
Most WorkSafeBC claims between 2017 and 2021 were related to "other strains" including back strains and other physical injuries.
Situation changed post-Omicron
While employers are still liable for COVID-19 exposures within their workplaces, Drinovz says things changed after the province ordered businesses to move from strict COVID-19 safety plans to communicable disease plans.
"Employers still have those obligations and they're still answerable to WorkSafe," he said. "But certainly, the focus is not as intense as it was during the heart of COVID."
The agency also notes that things changed dramatically when community transmission rates were high from the Omicron variant.
They say while the community remains at risk due to widespread community transmission, some workers remain at higher risk. The agency adds that they now have to determine which duties place workers at higher risk of contracting COVID.
Drinovz says it is illegal to restrict workers from filing a workers' compensation claim, and that employers should encourage workers to file claims if they deem it necessary.
B.C. occupations with most COVID-19 WorkSafeBC claims
Advocates ask for more support
Meena Brisard, secretary-business manager for the Hospital Employees' Union, says she's not surprised health-care workers filed the most workers' compensation claims related to COVID-19.
"[We] made sure that our members were aware that they could make workers' compensation board claims," she told CBC News.
"Each new wave of COVID-19 really pushes health-care workers closer to the brink."
She says the claims reflect how COVID-19 continues to affect communities.
"The level of community exposure is high. What you see in the community is also reflected in the health-care system in acute care, long-term care and assisted living."
Sanjiv Gandhi, a former surgeon and current deputy leader of the B.C. Green Party, says repeated illnesses could lead to longer-term health consequences for health-care workers.
"Health-care workers are humans just like everybody else, and they're going to get affected just like everybody else," he said at a news conference. "Perhaps more so, given they're around sick people every day."
Brisard says the union would continue to push the government to institute more mental health supports for health-care staff.
A WorkSafeBC spokesperson said in a statement that they introduced specific COVID-19-related mental health supports and "return-to-work opportunities" for employees who file a claim, in addition to an in-house clinic for workers experiencing long COVID, which can be accessed by those who reach out to WorkSafeBC.