It’s more than a hashtag. Working from home is the new way of life for millions of people across the country (thanks, COVID).
Whether you’re new to the “home office” concept or you’ve been telecommuting before it became so common, you might not know exactly how workers’ compensation (benefits you can receive if you’re injured at work) is affected if your injury happens at home rather than in the office or another work location.
Workers’ compensation benefits and laws vary by state, but here are 3 basics concepts you need to know:
- Workers’ compensation is a no-fault benefit insurance process. If you’re injured while you’re on a work site or while performing any duties or tasks related to your job, you can be compensated for your injury even if it was purely an accident — that is, not caused by negligence.
- Workers’ compensation covers your injuries that happen while you’re at work. That’s anytime you’re performing duties related to your job or requested by your employer, whether it occurs in an office, at home, or elsewhere.
- Workers’ compensation covers medical treatment and a portion of your lost wages. One of the biggest benefits to workers’ compensation is that you can receive coverage for your costs as soon as your claim is approved. There shouldn’t be a lengthy process that leaves you with unpaid medical bills or out-of-pocket expenses. However, workers’ compensation won’t cover pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of consortium, or other non-economic damages, and it doesn’t cover the full value of your lost wages.
We usually think of work injuries as falling on construction sites, back injuries from heavy lifting, or injuries like back and neck problems related to the positioning of your phone or computer peripherals at your desk.
In a worksite environment — whether it’s an office, restaurant, construction site, school, or anyplace else — you can receive workers’ compensation benefits for an injury that happens anytime you’re in your work location (or a location where you’re required to be in order to do your job).
Tripped on a phone cord? Slipped on a puddle in the bathroom? Cut your hand on a glass that fell into the sink?
Workers’ compensation would cover any of these injuries that happen at your job.
But working at home is different.
If you slipped on a puddle in your bathroom at home, you probably can’t claim workers’ compensation benefits (but you should probably talk to your kid, partner, or roommate who left the puddle).
When is an at-home work injury eligible for workers’ compensation?
First, you would need to show that the injury was related to your job. Ask yourself these questions:
- Was your employer benefiting from the task you were doing (or your actions) at the time the injury happened?
- Were you doing an activity required by your employer when you were injured?
- Did your employer approve the at-home activity before the injury happened?
There are 2 legal phrases that simplify the conditions under which your workers’ compensation claim for a work from home injury might be applicable:
- “In the course of” defines the period of time when the injury happened as being during work time.
- “Arising from” defines an injury that happens while performing work-related tasks or duties.
The personal comfort doctrine
Some states follow the personal comfort doctrine. The principle is that an employee is still covered under workers’ compensation while taking short comfort-related breaks — i.e. getting a snack, using the bathroom, making fresh coffee, or related activities.
However, if you’re injured during one of these times, whether your claim is covered will strongly rely on the specific facts and your state’s case law to determine whether it was a deviation from work activities when you were injured.
Here’s an example:
If you’re working at home and burn yourself removing your lunch from your own toaster or oven, whether you can receive workers’ compensation benefits while making lunch would depend on the personal comfort laws of your state.
While a lunchtime injury could be seen as still within the scope of your work, you likely can’t receive workers’ compensation while you take a short break to leave your home and walk your dog.
Take a look at this real-life case:
Sandberg v. JC Penney Co. Inc., 260 P. 3d 495, Oregon Court of Appeals, 2011. Mary Sandberg was a custom decorator who sold window treatments, upholstery, bedding and pillows. Some days, she would work in a studio and other days she would travel to her customers’ homes to meet with them in person. She’d routinely keep fabric samples in her car because it was the most efficient way to have them handy for her appointments. Since the samples wouldn’t all fit in the car and she didn’t have space at the studio for storage, Mary would keep her samples in her home garage when they weren’t in her car.
One day, she was rearranging her fabrics for a show. She needed to switch some from the garage into her car in order to prepare for a sale. On the way out to her garage, she tripped over her dog on her garage stairs and was injured.
Her workers’ compensation claim was originally denied. But on appeal, the court found that her injury is eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. The court focused on whether "the time, place, and circumstances of the injury justify connecting the injury to the employment."
The case further explains:
“An injury occurs in the course of employment if "it takes place within the period of employment, at a place where a worker reasonably may be expected to be, and while the worker is reasonably fulfilling the duties of employment or is doing something reasonably incidental to it."
Mary’s employment was conditional upon her ability to work at home and in her garage, which meant those areas are considered her work environment when she is working. Any injury suffered within that environment or encountered while she is working is considered to arise out of her employment. Mary was eligible to receive workers’ compensation benefits after her injury.
Workers’ comp coverage benefits the employer, employee, and the courts
Often, the workers’ compensation board will award benefits unless there’s a compelling reason not to. It’s in their own best interest (along with yours and your employer’s) to provide benefits and satisfy a claim.
|Employee benefits||Employer benefits||Court system benefits|
|Medical expenses and a portion of lost wages are covered during your recovery period.||The employee is prevented from filing a lawsuit related to the injury.||Avoids bottlenecks and large caseloads of work-related injury lawsuits that can overburden the court system.|
Proving a work-from-home injury
As we discussed, workers’ compensation is no-fault insurance, which means you don’t need to prove negligence related to your injury.
But the remote employee does have the burden to provide evidence that the injury is work-related. In other words, you have to demonstrate that the injury happened while you were acting in the interest of your employer.
The fact that the employer doesn’t control the employee’s work environment when working at home doesn’t mean they don’t need to provide workers’ compensation benefits.
An employer is responsible for the employee working remotely to have a safe environment, just like they would on-site.
How an employer can limit liability for an injury when an employee is working from home
There are a few steps the employer can take to make the lines clearer for what would or wouldn’t be covered by workers’ compensation:
- Define the employee’s work hours and duties. Even if you’re offering flexible hours, it’s reasonable to ask what they are and when you can expect the employee to be working.
- Set guidelines for the employee’s workspace. An employer can offer guidance and training to an employee on how to set up an ergonomic workstation in their home to avoid occupational injuries like carpal tunnel or other kinds of strain related to positioning and lighting.
- Establish a remote work policy with clear expectations. This might include accounting for time spent working, having a designated work area, how equipment is used, specific duties to be covered at home, and other guidelines.
Tips for creating a safe work environment at home
If you’re new to working at home because of the pandemic, you might not have had the time or opportunity to set up a workable, comfortable workspace as you would have if it was a planned transition.
Many people today are working in spare bedrooms, on kitchen tables, in basements, or in a corner of the playroom because they’re doing their best to adapt to a new situation. But here are some tips to help keep you safe at work (even if work is in your bedroom):
- Have an appropriate chair and desk that’s comfortable and well-suited to your size.
- Correctly position your computer, monitors or other peripherals, keyboard, and other things you reach for often so that they don’t cause strain.
- Consider a phone headset if you’re going to be using a phone often.
- Set up lighting to reduce eye strain.
- Create accessible storage for files or other items so you can eliminate tripping or lifting hazards.
- Be aware of the placement of electrical cords and other fire hazards.
Let’s face it, lots of people who never worked from home before this year are now looking at the arrangement to last several months, years, or indefinitely. Maybe you love it because you get to wear sweats every day, or perhaps you don’t because it means managing kids, pets, and other distractions while trying to be productive at your job.
But for the newly working-from-home people, we’re doing it for one reason: safety. Whether the government forced businesses to close or your employer elected to have employees working remotely to protect everyone from falling ill, we’re all adjusting to a new way of life. And being at home might protect you from the coronavirus, but you want to protect yourself from other workplace hazards, too.
If you were injured while working at home, follow the same steps as you would if you were injured at work. Inform your employer immediately and file a workers’ compensation claim as soon as possible. You’ll also need to visit a doctor to have a medical exam and document your injuries.