SEATTLE — Alaska Airlines is taking a COVID-19 workers’ compensation case centered on one of the company’s flight attendants to court.
In documents associated with the case, the company states it doesn't have the responsibility to pay wages and benefits to the worker, 54-year-old Shannon Bean of Bellevue, despite her claim she got the virus on a flight.
The Alaska employee, who’s worked for the company for 10 years, is diagnosed with long-haul COVID, described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a person having “ongoing health problems” experienced “four or more weeks after first being infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.”
Bean’s symptoms have persisted for 10 months and counting.
“I was in bed for four-and-a-half weeks,” Bean said. “I didn’t have any energy. I couldn’t walk up stairs. (I had) excruciating pain in my chest, like being stabbed with knives in the back. And (the symptoms) didn’t go away. I didn’t think I was going to make it…because I wasn’t getting better.”
“My financial future is in doubt. My physical future is in doubt,” Bean, who is a single mother of two, added.
Passenger tests positive for COVID
Bean’s long battle with COVID and her company started on January 22, 2021 when she worked a routine flight from Phoenix to Seattle. A week later, she received an email from Alaska that alerted her to a problem: “you have been identified through our contact tracing process as potentially being exposed to someone that has tested positive for COVID-19 (on the Phoenix flight).”
The company said the infected person was a passenger in seat 15B – Bean’s section of the aircraft.
“There was no question in my mind I got COVID (at work). I was doing nothing else; not going out. There was nothing to do – just work,” Bean said.
But Alaska Airlines didn’t see it that way. After Bean filed for workers’ compensation benefits on May 6, the company recommended to the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) that the claim be denied.
“We believe that this claim should be rejected,” Alaska attorney James Gress wrote to L&I. “(There is) no proof that the condition even came from her employment. Ms. Bean may have contracted the condition completely and entirely independent of her employment.”
Like many large companies, Alaska Airlines self-insures its L&I claims. Self-insured employers manage the claims, typically through a third-party administrator. The process is regulated by L&I, which has the final say on if claims are accepted or not.
In Bean’s case, L&I sided with the employee more than once.
The state rejected Alaska’s recommendation and allowed the claim. Alaska protested the allowance and lost again. The state wrote their original decision was “appropriate.”
“The confined area of the plane and completion of work duties in common areas of the plane create an increased likelihood of contracting the virus,” wrote Bradley Gunderson, with L&I’s self-insurance section. “There is no evidence to suggest that there was any community exposure that occurred outside of work, and as such, it is determined that the contraction of the virus is solely related to the employer confirmed work exposure.”
After that, Alaska took further legal action by filing an appeal with the state Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals. They also filed a motion to cut off Bean’s benefits pending the outcome of the appeal.
“Because the employer is reasonably likely to prevail in its litigation, the employer respectfully moves the Board for an order granting a stay of benefits,” wrote Gress, the Alaska attorney.
Alaska lost that legal challenge too.
“The Motion to Stay Benefits Pending Appeal is DENIED and Alaska Airlines, Inc., shall pay benefits pending appeals as provided by (state law),” wrote Linda Williams, chairperson for the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals.
An Alaska Airlines spokesperson sent KING 5 a statement to say that employee and customer safety is their highest priority, but they couldn’t comment on Bean’s case.
“Since the start of the pandemic, the safety of our employees and guests has always come first. Over the past 18 months we’ve invested in significant resources to educate our employees and encourage everyone to get vaccinated. We remain committed to protecting everyone from the impacts of the COVID-19 virus,” wrote Ray Lane, external communications manager at Alaska Airlines. “This specific case is an ongoing legal matter, which makes it difficult for us to comment about it. We are abiding by the processes that are in place as both parties work to resolve this matter.”
As time goes on, Bean said the uncertainty of her future is the most difficult part to handle. She’s unsure when she’ll be strong enough to return to work. Medical bills are stacking up with no clear end in sight.
“The hardest part is not knowing when I’m going to get better,” Bean said. “’How am I going to take care of my kids? How am I going to pay the bills?’”
Experts say they don’t know why some people get long-haul COVID, or how long symptoms will last.
“It adds a huge component to the stress,” said Dr. Upinder Singh, division chief for infectious diseases at Stanford Medicine. Her team started the Post-Acute COVID-19 Syndrome (PACS) Clinic at Stanford, where the focus is on long haulers, many of whom worry about their future.
“There are definitely some individuals who get better over time, but that time is long, up to a year or so after. But not everybody does, so I think that’s where the uncertainty is really difficult,” Singh said. “We don’t know if people are going to get slowly better over time, stay that way or get worse.”
Until Alaska’s appeal is decided, the company must pay Bean a portion of her paycheck. Each check is accompanied by a warning letter from Alaska’s self-insurance administrator, Eberle Vivian, that explains the employee may have to pay every penny back, as per state law.
“If your claim is ultimately rejected, (Alaska) has the right to demand that you reimburse them for any (wages) paid to you,” wrote an Eberle Vivian account executive.
“It’s wrong,” Bean said. “I go to work and take care of Alaska’s customers, every day. I work holidays, weekends – I’m away from my family for days at a time. I just wish they put the same care and compassion into their employees that I do their customers.”