Today, the world is experiencing a public health crisis of historic proportions. Since the Chinese government first alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) to the novel coronavirus in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China, the virus has spread too fast to contain. 

As of 19th March 2020, more than 183, 000 cases have been reported from over 160 countries around the world. While the majority of infected people have recovered, well over 7,000 have died from the virus. 

While the impact of the virus on public health and travel has been undeniable, the other aspects of its impact are still evolving. The pandemic poses several legal and regulatory challenges. 

For people seriously infected by the virus, is there a prospect of a safety net in the form of Social Security disability benefits? If you became seriously disabled due to the infection, would you qualify for disability benefits? These questions pose serious challenges, especially for those most severely affected by the coronavirus. In this article, we will address some of these issues. 

If you were infected by the virus at some point in the last few months, would you qualify for Social Security disability?

What is Social Security disability?

Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) is a program that provides for payment of disability benefits to disabled individuals. The individuals must have been insured under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act by their contributions to Social Security. The contribution is known as Social Security tax and is usually 6.2% of workers’ earnings. 

Eligibility for SSDI is governed by specific and strict regulations. To be qualified for disability benefits, an applicant is required to: 

  • Be younger than full retirement age (usually 65). 
  • Have accrued enough Social Security work credits. Work credits are based on your earnings. Each time you earn a certain amount of income, you receive one work credit. In 2020, you receive one credit for each $1,410 of your earnings. You can get up to four credits in any given calendar year. To be eligible for SSDI, you must have a total of forty credits. Twenty of these credits must have been earned in the ten years leading up to the date of your application.
  • Have a disability so severe that it prevents them from working. The disability must be such that you can no longer work in your field and cannot adjust to another field of employment. Also, the disability must be expected to last for at least one year or until death.

Apart from these, there are other factors that the Social Security Administration (SSA) may consider in determining eligibility. These include:

  • A person that has been disabled since childhood – before the age of twenty-two. He or she must have been dependent on a parent who was entitled to SSDI or retirement benefits. The person is qualified for SSDI even if the person’s parent is deceased.
  • A widow or widower who is disabled and is between fifty to sixty years old, if the deceased spouse was insured under Social Security.

What amounts to disability under the law?

Disability, as defined by the law, is inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity. This must be due to any medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s). The impairment:

  • Must be expected to result in death, or
  • Must have lasted for twelve months, or
  • Must be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months

Disabilities that occur as a result of alcoholism or drug addiction as contributing factors do not count. Also, disabilities caused or worsened while a person is committing a felony offense for which he or she was convicted do not count.

Does the coronavirus amount to a disability?

The coronavirus is officially a respiratory disease. It affects the lungs and results in cough, fever and difficulty with breathing. The virus attacks the cells of the lungs responsible for keeping the inside of the lungs moist and keeping them clear of dust or bacteria. These cells are called the goblet cells and the ciliated cells. 

The virus attacks these cells and begins to kill them as it replicates. As it kills them, the tissues fall into the lungs and cause blockage. The dead tissues, together with the virus, clog up the lungs and make them swell up. This produces fluid which can further clog breathing and lead to pneumonia.

The immune system at this point may begin to damage healthy tissues in an attempt to stop the virus. The normal reaction of the immune system is to destroy diseased cells to keep a person healthy. COVID-19, however, can cause hyper immunity as the immune system not only destroys the diseased cells but other healthy cells too. The eventual effect of this is organ failure, which is a serious health emergency that can lead to death.

While the virus will not be fatal in the majority of cases, there are reports that those who survive may experience reduced lung capacity for a prolonged period after. Some of the recovered patients were observed to be unable to maintain strenuous physical activity for long period. However, it is not clear if this lung damage will be permanent. 

Can the coronavirus qualify me for Social Security disability benefits?

Based on the definition of disability, COVID-19 may be tentatively classified as a disability because it can be expected to result in death. However, not all COVID-19 cases will result in death. From current indications too, the period of illness is no more than a few weeks to two or more months. This is well below the threshold recognized by the SSA. 

In addition, a person affected by the coronavirus must be prevented from working by the illness. But considering the strict screening process that a person must go through in order to qualify, it is doubtful that the SSA will accept the coronavirus as a disabling condition UNLESS that disease so disables you that you will be out of work for at least 12 months. 

That said, if you are infected with COVID-19, you can seek short term disability benefits through your employer, if such policy is available. Most short term disability policies have a 7-day elimination period. So, if a doctor tells you to stay out of work for fourteen days, you may be eligible for short term disability benefits. 

Also, if you contacted COVID-19 in the line of duty, you may be entitled to disability benefits under Workers’ Compensation benefits, depending on the circumstances of your infection.

In any event, it makes sense to stay in touch with your lawyer during this period. They can help you explore other options for benefits and compensation for your illness.  Perry Knows.

If you need an advice please call 252-243-1003 or email us at pmorrison@nccomplaw.com