The impacts of COVID are undeniable. Chief among them has been the proliferation of a WFH (Work From Home) workforce. Gallup reported that 43% of employees work from home at least some time. Businesses and employees have had to adapt to that new reality. One of the questions that arises is whether or not workers' comp benefits apply for WFH.
The short answer is yes. Workers’ compensation benefits may apply for injuries sustained by employees while working from home. Employees are covered for injuries regardless of location, outside or inside the employer’s workplace. The primary consideration is whether the injuries are, in fact, work-related. That said, whether the injury is truly work-related is a more complex question. It comes down to the details.
It’s clear that if an employee slips while moving a box on the employer’s premises while performing work, the corresponding injury is work-related and subject to workers’ compensation benefits. But what if that same action occurs while the employee is working from home? The answer depends on how and why the accident happened.
- Did the injury occur while the employee was doing something on the employer’s behalf? Compare a fall while walking down the stairs to perform a personal household function, versus a fall while walking down the stairs carrying work files to the employee’s at home desk.
- Was the employee required to conduct the activity by the employer? I.e., does the activity resulting in the injury further the interests of the employer.
- Was the action approved by the employer even though it happened off-site? I.e. did the employee take work home on a voluntary basis, or has the employee been authorized or directed to work from home, either part time or full time.
The burden of proof is on the employee. But, if an employee is able to explain how the injury was work-related, they may very well be given the benefit of the doubt. According to courts, it’s irrelevant whether or not the employer has control over the home-based work environment.
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Rulings
Pennsylvania addressed the issue of workers’ comp for WFH employees during a 2006 case, Verizon Pennsylvania v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Alston). An employee was working from home and fell down her stairs injuring her neck.
The injury happened when the employee left her basement office to get a drink. When returning to answer the phone, she fell. She filed a claim alleging she was injured furthering her employer’s business interests. The Commonwealth Court ruled in her favor.
The ruling was determined based on two factors:
- The home office was approved “secondary work premise.” Essentially, the employee’s home was an extension of the employer’s premises.
- The timing of the injury fell under the “personal comfort doctrine”. The employee was authorized to work from home by her employer and was working prior to leaving her office to get the drink. The Court focused on the their determination that the employee sustained an “injury arising in the course of his employment.”
With regard to “off premises” work injuries, the Commonwealth Court has consistently determined that minor deviations from work, like getting a drink, does not remove an employee from the “course and scope of employment” and therefore an employee may still qualify for benefits. This concept has come to be referred to as the “personal comfort doctrine.” Employees are entitled to deviate from work for personal comfort like going to the bathroom or getting lunch to perform work more effectively.
Addressing Workers’ Compensation Risks for WFH Employees
Generally speaking, courts error in favor of employees regarding distribution of workers’ compensation benefits. The premise is that the Courts are to interpret the facts of a given case in the context of the humanitarian nature of the workers’ compensation law.
By law, employers are responsible for providing a safe work environment regardless of whether an employee is on premises or telecommuting.
A business owner, may take steps to reduce liability for a workers’ compensation claim.
- Establish policies relating to WFH employees. Create a written policy that governs employees obligations for working from home.
- Define work hours. WFH workers may fail to take appropriate breaks leading to fatigue. As a result, injuries may occur, including carpal tunnel, neck pain, back pain, and posture issues. Musculoskeletal disorders annually exceed $50 billion in workers’ comp claims according to OSHA.
- Establish home office guidelines. Make sure employees understand and agree to WFH guidelines. They should have an appropriate workstation setup to prevent repetitive stress injuries.
- Examine home office setups. By reviewing home office setups, you can eliminate potential work hazards that might lead to an accident.
Filing a Workers’ Comp Claim
Pennsylvania employers are required to carry workers’ compensation insurance. The system of workers’ compensation is considered a no-fault system . If an employee is granted WFH privileges, their home is their workplace and injuries occurring there may result in workers’ comp benefits.
Should an injury occur at home, both the employer and the employee should follow the same protocol as if the injury occurred on the employer’s premises. The first step an employee should take is to report the workers’ compensation claim. Work from home injuries may be viewed with some initial skepticism by the employer and the workers’ compensation carrier, so WFH workers need to pay particular attention to the details surrounding the circumstances that lead to the injury, and making sure they accurately communicate that information to their employer.
The first step for the employer and it’s worker’s compensation carrier is a thorough investigation. Naturally, an immediate on premises investigation may not be possible, but a thorough telephonic fact finding is a necessity. Remember, these claims are highly fact specific.