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The sudden loss of millions of jobs, restrictions on nonemergency health care and the potential workers compensation claims from pandemic-related illness have experts doubting whether claims will follow the conventional industry pattern of past downturns.

Experts say they are on the lookout for greater frequency, a longer chain on claims because of limited medical services and increased cumulative trauma claims.

According to the story in Business Insurance, Len Herk, executive director and senior economist at the National Council on Compensation Insurance said that “Not all recessions are the same,” “We might see some of the same themes as in past recessions, but – the pandemic recession is really a different animal.”

During recessions employment and payroll reductions typically lead to a drop in workers compensation premium, and injury frequency dips below trends, according to research from Boca Raton, Florida-based NCCI.

Workers compensation economists have a number of theories as to why claim frequency tends to dip during a recession, Mr. Herk said. One theory is that employers typically lay off their newest employees – who are more likely to be injured than longer-tenured workers – and when they are hired back they remain more susceptible to injury, he said.

Another theory is that employers who fear they may be laid off if they file a workers comp claim will be less likely to do so.

However, there is limited evidence on how much each factor contributes to these recession trends, and the data is too aggregated to “clearly distinguish one theory from another,” Mr. Herk said. “There are a lot of good questions about employment fluctuations and workers comp that remain to be carefully addressed in research.”

In the economic downturn spurred by shutdowns to limit the spread of COVID-19, “all bets are off,” said David Bellusci, executive vice president and chief actuary of the Workers Compensation Insurance Ratings Bureau in Oakland, California.

We almost instantly went from close to full employment to perhaps unemployment as high as 25% in a matter of four months,” he said. “Even during the Great Depression, (unemployment) eventually went to 25% but that was over four years. It’s really unprecedented, and exactly how that’s going to impact (workers comp), who knows? We’ve never seen anything like this.”

Nationally, the “relative magnitudes” of other factors will determine whether workers compensation acts differently during this economic downturn, NCCI noted in a quarterly briefing in April.

Some factors that could affect the comp system include whether injured employees who are temporarily laid off defer the reporting of workplace injuries for fear of losing their jobs when stay-at-home orders are lifted, or whether workers who anticipate a permanent job loss “accelerate” their reporting of injuries.

The enhanced unemployment insurance made available to laid-off workers by lawmakers early in the pandemic may also impact claims reporting, since the federal unemployment benefit for many lower-wage workers is higher than full indemnity benefits under workers comp – and generally workers cannot claim both unemployment and workers comp benefits at the same time, according to the NCCI.