By ANDREW J. LUCA
Due to the pandemic, many of us have been working from home since March of 2020.
Countless businesses were compelled to quickly shift to “Work From Home” [“WFH”] environments following governmental initiatives enacted to combat the spread of COVID-19.
In the wake of these early actions, some WFH employees have now found themselves at the crossroads of an expanding legal question. If you, the employee, are instructed to work from home by your employer, are you covered if injured during your workday?
Are You Covered?
At present, the answer is typically “yes.” But this answer could change as the prolonged pandemic continues.
Traditionally, Workers Compensation benefits cover workers for injuries sustained whether they are inside or outside an employer’s physical place of business. The coverage question, historically, has been whether or not the accident was a work-related injury, i.e. within the course and scope of the employee’s duties.
The conventional inquiries still apply – did the injury occur in furtherance of the employers’ business; did the injury occur as a result of an activity required by an employer; was the work-related task being done with permission/authorization of the employer or was that permission/authorization implied?
If the employee, the individual usually tasked with the burden of proof in these instances, can explain that the injury was directly related to their employment responsibilities or that the injury stemmed indirectly from a work-related duty, he or she is traditionally eligible for Workers Compensation coverage without further questioning.
However, the legal landscape in this area is now witnessing an expansion of these inquiries as a result of changing Work From Home company policies because the pandemic’s end remains unknown.
Be Mindful of Your Employer’s ‘Work From Home’ Requirements:
Many companies through the years have fostered on-site employee-based safety groups that are responsible for bolstering a safer working environment.
These safety-conscious volunteers seek to reduce potential employee injuries through a myriad of company-sanctioned efforts, which include fire drills, keeping one’s work area clean and orderly through the use of informational displays, monthly emails and even prize-driven contests.
As a result, participating companies statistically experience fewer Workers Compensation claims being filed. However, how are these safety-oriented exercises facilitated when fellow co-workers are not around and the employee occupies a workplace of one?
To combat this solitary condition, some companies are requiring their WFH workforce to sign off on forms attesting to the safety of an employee’s home-work environment. Among these requirements are that employees verify they have set up a specific area to perform their job duties, which includes a designated desk and chair location in their home versus opening their laptop on the kitchen table to start their day.
Other company mandates may require that employees affirm, in a signed writing, that they are not simultaneously caring for an elderly parent or child during work hours.
Further still, other businesses are now requiring their workers to ratify agreements that they are not operating a home-based business during work hours. Such entrepreneurial endeavors could require boxing, shipping or travel to the local post office to carry out one’s private commerce dealings, which increases the possibility of injury during the workday.
At first glance, these restrictions appear invasive, overreaching and even offensive. But these employer-prepared forms and certifications are designed to minimize WFH accidents and the subsequent filing of Workers Compensation injury claims while working from home.
If an injury investigation reveals that WFH employee “Jane” actually hurt herself carrying her aging parent upstairs during workday hours, her Workers Compensation claim may be denied because her injury was outside the course and scope of her employment.
The same holds true for worker “Doug,” who, while working his day job at home, was injured when packaging his latest Amazon sale for his home-based business.
Rule of Thumb:
Reported instances of a few employees collecting Workers Compensation for nonwork-related injuries during the pandemic-fueled Work From Home initiatives have prompted companies to change their policies to protect their bottom line.
Violations of the employers’ forms and certifications discussed above can be used to deny a work-related injury claim.
A few rules of thumb for employees to protect themselves while working from home: (1) if injured during your workday, make a note of what task you were doing for your employer when the injury occurred; (2) notate how your employment injury occurred; (3) be sure to tell your company’s manager or supervisor as quickly as possible of the injury.
These brief suggestions and your timely fulfillment of them may afford you and your injury the protections you deserve so you can focus on getting better and avoid feeling overwhelmed about your household monthly bills, which are now coming to you at your place of employment.
About the Author: Andrew J. Luca, Esquire is a co-founding member of the CKL Law Group, LLP and has been practicing Real Estate and Consumer Fraud law in New Jersey for nearly 20 years.