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Virginia is the only state that doesn’t cover work-related injuries that occur over time

person sitting on firetruck
John Orndorff, a firefighter in Winchester, Virginia. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

John Orndorff says he’s an adrenaline junky - that’s one of the reasons he became a firefighter more than 17 years ago. But being a lieutenant at Frederick County Fire and Rescue in Winchester, Virginia, means some days are a little less high octane. 

“We have an elderly community back here behind us that we service,” Orndorff says. “One lady back there is a diabetic and I physically sat down and had dinner with her twice because her sugar was low.”

It wasn’t a hard fall or building collapse that caused Orndorff’s back injury. It was a combination of hauling 100 pounds of protective clothing and gear and lifting elderly neighbors who had fallen that caused the discs in his spine to deteriorate.

“The continual stress of picking stuff up, it just builds and builds,” Orndorff says.

Throughout the country, employees usually get help paying bills and covering medical expenses when they’re injured at work. But in Virginia, workers don’t qualify for those benefits if their injury, like Orndorff's, occurs over time.

Orndorff started documenting minor back pain about seven years ago. But last fall, it finally became a problem he could no longer ignore.

“I went to run across the parking lot, and I wasn’t able to run. It kind of seemed like I was running on spaghetti legs,” he said.

A doctor told Orndorff he’d suffered what’s called a repetitive motion injury and needed surgery. So he set out to file a worker’s compensation claim.

“When I relayed that to our union president, it was pretty much, ‘well, sorry,’” Orndorff said.

That’s when Orndorff learned Virginia is the only state where workers can’t get compensation for repetitive motion injuries caused by their work.

There’s a long list of injuries that aren’t eligible for compensation in Virginia, including rotator cuff injuries, tendinitis and some knee injuries.  Carpal tunnel syndrome can be covered, but requirements for proving it’s work-related are much harder than for other injuries.

“Worker’s compensation generally, not just [in] Virginia, serves as what has been referred to a long time ago as a grand bargain,” says

Robert Rapaport, Chairman of the state Workers’ Compensation Commission. “Prior to worker’s compensation, if an employee is injured, his cause of action was to sue his employer.”

Today, no one has to prove who was at fault. But, Rapaport says employees, especially in Virginia, still have a lot to prove when they file a claim: “That you were in the course of your employment at the time that you got hurt, that there was an identifiable instance, I tripped, I slipped, I stumbled, I fell, that it occurred at a reasonably definite time. And then I need to prove there was a sudden mechanical change. I felt pain. The bone was sticking out of my leg,” he says.

Virginia state Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William) was shocked when she found out about the gap in coverage. She was meeting with workers at her local grocery store who had sustained injuries from butchering meat for years. Some were forced to retire early. Others kept working despite their injuries. None of them were eligible for compensation to pay medical bills or take time off.

“We’re talking about individuals, employees, who have dedicated their life to their employers,” Guzman said. “And the least that we can do is to pay for those injuries.”

Guzman found out researchers with the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which conducts research for the General Assembly, had already looked into the coverage gap in 2019 and recommended lawmakers address the issue. So she’s introduced a bill every year since to make cumulative trauma eligible for coverage under the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act.

And every year, she faces opposition from employers and their advocates, like John Heard, with the Virginia Self-Insurers Association.

“If something like this passes, how are employers going to protect themselves against their employees who have activities outside of work that result in these types of injuries,” Heard testified before a committee this year.

Guzman’s bill later failed on a party-line vote.

Legislators on the committee had some of the same concerns as heard: an increase in claims, lost profitability among employers and higher premiums.

The 2019 study - as well as another state study in 2020 - concluded, however, that some states that cover these injuries have lower workers’ compensation premiums than Virginia.

Back in Winchester, Orndorff says there’s too much at stake to just cut his losses. He’s got three kids; one is headed to Virginia Tech in the fall. And his savings account is completely drained.

“With the bills that I have, what I’ve paid prior to surgery, pretty close to about 30,000,” Orndorff says. “I don’t know too many people that have an extra $30,000.”

Besides, he says, he didn’t become a firefighter to sit at a desk.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.