About 18,000 people have filed workers' compensation claims, saying they contracted COVID-19 while working in Minnesota.

Half of the claims have been paid so far. But state data show none of those paid are from the state's largest meat-processing plants, where some of the state's biggest workplace outbreaks occurred.

The meat processing plants have had 935 claims filed for COVID.

"I've never seen numbers that dramatic," said John Malone, a workers' compensation attorney with Malone & Atchison in St. Cloud and Edina. "There are certainly claims that are disfavored and routinely litigated. But to accept zero out of 935 is shocking to me."

Malone said the pattern suggests that meat plant managers were applying a blanket policy, rather than individually judging each case.

Officials at Brazil-based meatpacking firm JBS, which runs a large pork plant in Worthington and also owns the Pilgrim's Pride chicken plant in Cold Spring, denied Malone's assertion.

"We are following all legal requirements with respect to workers' compensation claims during the pandemic," JBS USA said in a statement. "Given the widespread nature of viral transmission in communities, our [insurance] administrator reviews each case thoroughly and independently."

Raising and processing pigs, turkeys and cows into food is a multibillion-dollar industry in Minnesota. In 2019, workers in the animal slaughtering and processing industry filed 171 workers' compensation claims, and 88% of them were paid. That was one percentage point below the Minnesota average for all industries.

JBS said the COVID-19 claims tallied by state officials were from a requirement the company fulfilled to notify the state of any diagnosed or alleged cases, and those do not necessarily match the allegations in workers' compensation claims. Sixteen of the cases remain unresolved.

Workers' compensation is a system in which employees who lose income because of work-related health problems can get paid without filing a lawsuit against the employer. Resolutions can include money sent directly to health care providers, or payments to workers or families for lost income. The claims are paid by insurers, though large companies are often self-insured, as JBS is.

Labor experts say winning a COVID-related claim for missed income will require the employee to prove that the work environment was more likely than not the cause of their exposure to the virus — a high bar if the virus is also circulating in the wider community.

"Was it really workplace exposure, or was it really community exposure?" said Mark Kulda, a lobbyist with the Insurance Federation of Minnesota. "It is going to be a difficult fight between expert witnesses. It's hard to say who is right in that case."

The higher-paid claim rate in some industries with essential workers could be attributed to a state law that presumes if those employees — unlike meatpackers — caught COVID-19, it was at work.

Latest COVID-19 statistics

Cases of COVID-19 are down substantially across Minnesota since last spring, when sudden outbreaks in meat-processing plants and surrounding communities forced temporary facility shutdowns.

Declining rates of new cases and hospitalizations, combined with the availability of limited amounts of vaccine, prompted Gov. Tim Walz to declare last week that all Minnesota schools are expected to offer some form of in-person learning by March 8.

Nearly 25% of teachers had been vaccinated as of Feb. 17, Walz said.

Statewide, more than 750,000 people have received their first dose of vaccine, while 341,000 have gotten both doses. That means the more than 1 million total doses administered in Minnesota have gotten the state nearly 9% of the way to its goal of fully vaccinating 80% of people over 16.

On Sunday, the state's tally of diagnosed cases of COVID-19 rose by 879, bringing the total number of cases in the state to 479,036.

More than 6,400 Minnesotans have died from complications of the viral respiratory illness, including nine fatalities reported Sunday. According to the state Health Department, the deaths included one person in their 40s and eight others between 60 and 99. Four lived in assisted living or long-term care.

Benefit of the doubt

The state Health Department does not publish estimates of how many total deaths or cases can be traced to transmission of COVID-19 at work.

But COVID-19 has had a major impact on the filing of compensation claims. In 2019, the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry received nearly 32,000 total claims, compared with 43,000 filed in 2020, state data show.

Claims related to COVID-19 are being denied far more often than claims filed the year before the pandemic started, when the denial rate was 10%, state data provided to the Star Tribune show.

All told, half of the 17,814 COVID-related workers' compensation claims filed between March 2020 and Jan. 25 were paid. About 4,000 of those cases remain undecided.

So far, the Minnesota Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals has not published any decision from a COVID-related case. Such a decision could be appealed directly to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The difference between 2020 and the year before is that in 2019, the claims were mostly for injuries, not illnesses, which require a different level of proof.

"Across all industries, it is more difficult to have illness claims accepted ... compared to injury claims," said Brian Zaidman, senior research analyst at the state Labor and Industry Department.

The 2020 acceptance rate was heavily skewed by a state law passed last year that gave special status to certain essential front-line jobs — police, firefighters, paramedics and workers in health care, corrections and child care. The law provides a legal "presumption" that if they get sick with COVID-19 that it came from work for the purposes of workers' comp.

The Wall Street Journal reported Feb. 14 that about dozen states nationally have passed similar presumption laws.

For Minnesota jobs that had the presumption, 19% of COVID-related workers' compensation claims were denied, state data show.

In jobs without the presumption, 68% were denied. (Up to 25% of presumption and non-presumption claims remain open.)

From March 2020 to Jan. 25, the only meatpacker claims not denied were the 16% still being contested.

The issue will move to the Legislature in coming weeks, as bills from Rep. Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud, move into committee aiming to extend worker protections in meatpacking plants and reauthorize the workers' comp presumption for essential workers, which expires in May.

Kulda of the Minnesota Insurance Federation said another issue under discussion is extending the workers' compensation presumption to teachers.

Opponents of the first presumption law last March objected to the financial uncertainty it would create for insurance plans, he said. Even today, questions linger about what triggers financial exposure.

"There are many jurisdictions around the country where they are having that same discussion," Kulda said. "We're just in the preliminary stages of this."

Staff writer Mike Hughlett contributed to this report.

Joe Carlson • 612-673-4779