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Working outside the home during a pandemic brings serious risks. Workers who do so are at a much higher risk for exposure to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) because of their need to interact daily with broad segments of the population. Workers who are exposed to COVID-19 in their workplaces face not only a threat to personal and family health but also the risks of high medical expenses and lost wages.

Labor groups argue that covering losses related to COVID-19 through the workers' compensation system offers protection for vulnerable workers whose jobs put them at higher risk of infection than the general public. Business groups argue that given the difficulties in contact tracing and the virus's three- to five-day incubation period, it would be unfair to require insurers to pay benefits (which would ultimately be passed along to employers in the form of higher premiums) to workers who could have contracted the disease outside of work.

The authors of this Perspective examine the initial efforts and reasoning of policymakers to grant access to workers' compensation benefits to employees who are required to work outside the home during the COVID-19 pandemic. They briefly assess the potential impacts of continuing to expand such access on workers, employers, and insurers. And finally, they pose further questions that policymakers and others may want to consider when evaluating past policies and crafting new ones to meet future public health emergencies.

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Funding for this research was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations. This research was conducted by the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

This publication is part of the RAND Corporation Perspective series. RAND Perspectives present expert insights on timely policy issues. All RAND Perspectives undergo peer review to ensure high standards for quality and objectivity.

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