By Mark Kendall
Legal Services Manager
In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the number of employees working outside of the traditional work place – 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at an established work premises. Today, millions of U.S. workers perform at least a portion of their work duties outside of the office.
To put this issue in perspective, in 2012, more than 3.3 million U.S. employees reported they considered their home to be their primary place of work. This represents an 80% increase when compared with 2005. It is estimated that approximately 25 million Americans work from home (telecommute) at least one day per month.
While allowing employees to work from home may have various advantages for employers – improved morale, increased productivity, longer work hours – these arrangements can make it more difficult for employers to prevent, verify and manage workers compensation claims. The same factors that make telecommuting attractive to employers and employees – flexible work place and work hours – make it very difficult for employers to assess the compensability of injuries occurring within the home office.
From a workers’ compensation perspective, as a general rule, when it comes to teleworkers, the home becomes the work premises. Similarly, the time of employment can become anytime of the day or night that the worker is performing employment-related tasks.
This can result in perplexing questions regarding what constitutes a compensable claim. For example, is a teleworker covered for injuries sustained preparing for the start of their work day, such as walking downstairs to a basement home office, stocking the home office with supplies, cleaning the home office?
What about injuries sustained during personal comfort activities throughout the day such as coffee breaks, restroom visits or meals?
Are workers covered for injuries sustained performing work activities during hours that are outside of “normal” work hours?
While it may not be possible for employers to eliminate these types of ambiguous situations, there are steps employers can take to avoid, or at least verify, injury claims by teleworkers. These steps may include:
- Be selective when approving workers to telecommute. Employers should attempt to limit telecommuting to employees who have demonstrated maturity, trust, and self-direction.
- Establish a written telecommute policy that sets forth permissible work hours and defines the work area within the home.
- Educate teleworkers regarding your expectations surrounding telework.
- Periodically, check home work areas for potential hazards and ergonomic issues
- Require prompt reporting of any injuries occurring within the home.
Allowing employees to telecommute may have various advantages for employees and employers. However, employers must be mindful of the business and legal risks associated with such arrangements. This discussion has focused on identifying and mitigating risks that telecommuting poses with respect to workers compensation claims.
Employers also may want to speak with their labor and employment counsel to determine the ramifications of such arrangements when it comes to federal and state employment laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.