The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has changed the way millions of people work. Social distancing guidelines have required many companies to enable employees to work remotely from their homes when possible. Oftentimes, this practice is referred to as “WFH” or working from home. 

Keeping that in mind, what happens when an employee who is working remotely suffers an injury? While the COVID-19 pandemic has altered “normal life” significantly, remote working is not a new concept. Typically, if a remote worker is injured while conducting work-related activities, he or she will be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits.

Defining “work-related injuries” for remote workers

In general, an employee injury or illness is compensable under workers’ comp if it “arises out of and in the course of employment,” regardless of where the injury occurs. To break it down:

  • “Arising out of” relates to what the employee was doing at the time of the injury

  • “In the course of” relates to when the injury happened

A workplace injury may occur suddenly (like a minor burn) or develop over time (like carpal tunnel syndrome). In either case, a compensable injury must have occurred during work hours and from an activity related to the employee’s job. Most often, the hurt employee has the burden of proving that the injury was work-related and needs adequate evidence in their favor. Since many telecommuters are home alone while they work, there may not always be someone who can corroborate the incident.

Take, for example, Verizon Pennsylvania v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Alston). In 2006, an employee was working from home when she fell down the stairs to her home office, injuring her neck. She had been working in her basement home office when she went upstairs to get a drink. She fell walking back downstairs to the office to answer a ringing phone. Even though she had briefly stopped working to get a drink, the workers’ compensation judge, Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, and the Commonwealth Court ruled in favor of the injured worker. The Commonwealth Court determined that the home office was an approved “secondary work premise.” The claimant was injured in the course and scope of her employment, so benefits were awarded.

Because state laws differ about what’s considered a “work-related injury,” it’s important to define each employee’s normal working hours and specific job duties to help determine what is—and is not—a work-related claim.

Tips for ensuring safe telecommuting practices

While a business owner or manager doesn’t always have significant control over the conditions of an employee’s home-based workspace, it’s still important to ensure that home offices are safe work environments. Here’s how:

  • Create a remote-working policy that details your expectations for telecommuters. Review it with employees and ask them to sign an acknowledgment that they received and reviewed the policy.

  • Set fixed work hours and meal and rest times for remote workers to better define “in the course of employment.”

  • Clearly define each employee’s scope of work. The policy should state that activities falling outside the employee’s job description are not the employer’s responsibility.

  • Establish standards for a home office, such as requiring a designated and dedicated work area.

  • Provide training on workstation setup and safety measures, including ergonomics.

  • Detail the equipment used by each employee.

  • Enact guidelines for check-ins (such as geo-tracking or equipment tracking) or other reporting milestones.

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