Navigating Workers’ Compensation in the Era of Remote Work
Originally published on October 9, 2023
A lot has changed in the world of workers’ compensation. The first laws were passed in Wisconsin over 100 years ago, long before computers and the internet transformed workplaces. Yet one thing remained the same until a few years ago — a clear delineation between the on-site workplace and an employee’s private home.
In a post-COVID world, however, remote work has become much more common. This has introduced new complexities when it comes to workers’ compensation. Rules regarding claims can vary based on jurisdiction and specific circumstances, so it’s important to know what the laws cover.
What is Workers’ Compensation Insurance?
Workers’ compensation insurance provides benefits to workers who suffer employment-related injury or illness. This insurance helps pay for medical care, rehabilitation costs and wages from lost work. In a workers’ compensation claim, no party is deemed at fault. As a result, businesses are protected from civil suits from their workers who are injured on the job.
Workers’ compensation insurance is mandated by every U.S. state except Texas. Employers pay entirely for the insurance and cannot require employees to contribute to its cost.
Remote Work and Workers’ Compensation
Determining whether an injury or illness occurring during remote work is eligible for workers’ compensation can be challenging. This is due to the blurred lines between work and personal activities, since the location for both is the same.
For an injury or illness suffered remotely to be covered by workers’ compensation, it must have occurred within the scope and course of employment. In other words, the activity causing the injury must be part of their job duties. This can include answering work calls and emails, attending required virtual meetings or other work-related tasks.
Challenges and Considerations
While we don’t like to think about it, workers do sometimes file false workers’ compensation claims. It’s a serious offense, but one that’s often difficult to prove. So there’s a lot to consider when addressing workers’ compensation claims for remote workers.
Proving the Injury: Remote work environments lack the direct oversight of traditional workplaces. So proving that an injury or illness is work related can be more challenging. Because no co-workers have witnessed the incident, you as an employer have nothing to rely on except the claimant’s explanation.
Work vs. Personal Activities: Remote workers often have flexibility in managing their time, which blurs the distinction between work and personal activities. Determining whether an injury occurred during work hours and work-related activities can be more complex.
Examples of covered injuries could include:
- An employee was pacing while on a work call. While walking, they stepped awkwardly and severely broke their ankle.
- An employee accidentally dropped their laptop on their bare foot and broke a toe.
The following scenarios, however, would likely not be covered by workers’ compensation insurance:
- An employer refused to purchase new office furniture for an employee, so the employee purchased it themselves. While carrying the boxes of new office furniture up the stairs at their home, the employee slips and injures their back.
- An employee slips and falls while doing a personal household chore (like laundry or mopping) while on a break.
Other contributing factors could include employees under the influence of alcohol or legal drugs, doing personal chores, and bad ergonomics of home furnishings.
Location Jurisdiction: Jurisdictional issues can arise when a remote worker’s home is in a different state or country than their employer. Workers’ compensation laws vary by region, and it’s not always clear which jurisdiction governs the case.
Mitigation and Best Practices
Take the following steps to address these challenges.
- Set clear policies: Establish remote work policies that outline expectations, work hours and activities considered work related. You should also provide remote workers a safety checklist so they can evaluate their workspace at home. These checklist items can include:
- Is the floor clear of tripping hazards, including cables and area rugs?
- Is there a working smoke detector nearby?
- If you use a space heater, is it kept clear of flammable items?
- Are your electrical plugs free of exposed or damaged wiring?
- Do you have enough lighting to avoid eye strain (or poor visibility that could lead to trips/falls)?
- Does your desk chair provide enough support?
- Is the monitor and keyboard set up in ergonomically ideal positions?
You might also consider inspecting the employee’s home office and documenting the inspection. Granted, there’s no requirement for such an evaluation (and your employee might see it as intrusive). But that established knowledge of their workspace at home can help both you and your employee if a claim needs verification.
- Emphasize proper and thorough documentation: Remote workers should document their work activities and any incidents that happen during work hours. This documentation helps establish the connection between the injury and work-related tasks.
- Keep communication open: Clear and open channels between you and your remote workers has multiple benefits. First, it helps determine the eligibility of a workers’ compensation claim. It can also be used to better resolve issues before they become claims in the first place.
- Establish a remote/hybrid-remote work policy and agreement: Develop an agreement that clearly defines requirements and expectations of remote/hybrid-remote work. This agreement will be signed by both you and the employee. Recommended items to include in this agreement include:
- Definition of a remote and hybrid-remote employee
- Voluntary nature of the agreement based on the business needs of the company
- The remote agreement is at the discretion of leadership and may be discontinued at any time.
- Continued at-will nature of employment
- Employee’s work schedule
- Description of what constitutes a designated work area
- Requirement to report all injuries and illnesses sustained as a result of work-related tasks
- Your right as an employer to inspect the employee’s home workspace
- A statement that your company’s policies, rules, and procedures apply in the same manner as when working in the company’s business offices
- The stipulation that their remote office is not suitable for child or dependent care, and the employee agrees to make or maintain other care arrangements to permit concentration on working assignments during working hours
- The requirement that security and confidentiality should be maintained at the same level as in the company’s business offices
- The address of the remote work location
- Agreement to follow the safety checklist
- Clear explanations on which equipment is provided by your company and which must be supplied by the employee (e.g. internet, router)
- Get legal advice. Given the complexity and variability of workers’ compensation laws, it’s important for employers to seek legal advice when dealing with potential workers’ compensation claims.
As an employer, you need to acknowledge the significant shift in the workforce paradigm over the last few years. You can start by making sure your company’s workers compensation claims processes address the world of remote employment.
Workers’ compensation laws and regulations can change over time and vary by jurisdiction. For the most accurate and up-to-date information, consult legal experts and an experienced HR consultant. With proactive measures, you can effectively remain in compliance, manage risk… and keep your employees safe and happy.
All content provided in this article is for informational purposes only. Matters discussed in this article are subject to change. For up-to-date information on this subject please contact a James Moore professional. James Moore will not be held responsible for any claim, loss, damage or inconvenience caused as a result of any information within these pages or any information accessed through this site.
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