Essential Workers' Comp
Scott Ford and Cheryl Wallach on educating workers during the COVID-19 era
Published in 2021 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
on January 21, 2021
Updated on January 22, 2021
When COVID-19 began spreading across the globe in the early months of 2020, most everyone had the same questions: How contagious is it? In what way? Do masks help? How long will it last?
For Scott Ford and Cheryl Wallach, the questions took a specific shape: How would the pandemic affect the rights of workers?
Ford and Wallach’s eponymous firm, with offices in Burbank and LA, specializes in working with labor and labor unions. Since 1998, when Wallach joined as an associate, the attorneys have dealt with claims that run the gamut from annoying to fatal. “The most common workers’ comp claims tend to be long-term, repetitive-motion injuries,” says Ford. “Carpal tunnel, worn-out knees, and backs and limbs.”
Pre-pandemic, the pair provided trainings to union stewards on workers’ comp basics. When COVID-19 hit, the rules had to be rewritten.
“The last pandemic was 1918,” says Ford. “Nobody’s got any experience.”
“In the beginning, I didn’t even know to ask if they had a positive test, because people weren’t necessarily getting tests,” says Wallach. “[Now] I have a whole checklist of things to ask: ‘Were you hospitalized? Were you the first person in your house to get it? Did you give it to other people? Did you have the antibody test?’”
They’re now receiving multiple COVID-19 calls a day: people who’ve contracted the virus, people who’ve brought the virus home to loved ones, people who are shouldering more work than usual because their co-workers have been furloughed.
“What a lot of people don’t understand is, you don’t have to show the science,” Ford says. “You don’t have to say, ‘Hey, we have all these tests to show that I contracted this at the worksite.’” Instead, he says, workers who contract the virus only need to demonstrate that their workplace puts them at a higher risk than the general public to have a viable claim.
As the pandemic progressed, Ford and Wallach turned their workers’ comp trainings into webinars about COVID-19. They found that attendees—particularly those in high-risk, essential fields, like trash collectors, warehouse workers or hospital workers—are concerned with what will happen to them from a labor standpoint if they contract the disease, and what they can demand in terms of workplace safety protocols.
“Some of the questions they ask are: ‘If I get COVID-19, what are my rights? How do I get treated? Am I entitled to wage-loss replacement? Am I entitled to job protection?’” says Ford. “The second thing they’re interested in is protections at the worksite.”
One case they’ve worked on involves a worker who suffered an injury after falling over boxes full of work-related files piled up in her living room. The more common scenario, though, is “where someone brings it home, gives it to a loved one, and the loved one has more severe symptoms than the injured worker,” says Ford. In one such case, the spouse died. The firm is pursuing a psychiatric injury claim and civil remedies for the family.
Despite the case load, both Ford and Wallach know their work is more important than ever. “We are true believers,” says Wallach. “We believe in the workers’ comp system. And we believe in fighting for people who can’t fight for themselves.”