Considering Worker’s Compensation Liability for Remote Employees

By Sandra Fenters

Many employees are now working from their homes.  This remote work trend is likely to continue even as ‘stay at home’ orders expire.

There are many benefits to this remote work during the quarantine. However, there are also some new issues that need to be considered since employers cannot realistically monitor the actions of their remote employees. This lack of active supervision presents some potential liabilities including worker’s compensation claims from accidental injuries sustained at ‘work.’

But how does an employer define ‘work’ when an employee works remotely? In a traditional office setting, company policies, typically defined in an Employee Handbook, state the physical boundaries of the office as well as the work hours. The worksite and work hours are more clearly defined and can be easily monitored in an office.

Working from home presents challenges

Employers can define remote ‘worksite’ and ‘work hours,’ but there are challenges particularly during this pandemic when everyone in a family is likely to be sheltered at home. For example, need for in-home child care may present issues to an employee’s work hours. Office setup will vary from team member to team member.

This raises the question: will worker’s accidental injuries sustained during business hours not defined in the employee handbook or in the traditional workspace be covered?

Also, questions may arise regarding what the worker was doing when the accident took place. A home office may present issues and risks that are not found in a traditional office setting. Was the employee undertaking an activity that was inconsistent with his/her scope of employment? If so, was the activity a mild ‘detour’ or an extreme ‘frolic’?

Finally, home offices may not be ergonomically compliant. OSHA estimates that about one-third of worker’s compensation claims come from claims involving ergonomic injuries.

Steps to mitigate risk

Establishing set hours specifically for your remote employees is one way to limit your exposure to accident liability. Also, it is important in policy manuals to identify activities that are acceptable and therefore covered under worker’s compensation as well as personal conduct that is not covered.  Additionally, employers will want to work with its remote employees to be sure their work areas are not only safe but consistent with their specialized physical work needs.

It is important that employers outline remote work policies to inform employees as well as mitigate risk.

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