Implications for Workers’ Compensation Liability When Employees Work from Home
April 14, 2020
With many people working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, questions arise regarding workers’ compensation liability for injuries occurring in a “workplace” that is outside the employer’s control. These are unprecedented times with no direct authority addressing this precise issue. However, some guidance can be drawn from workers’ compensation cases concerning general issues related to when, where, and under what circumstances an injury occurring while working at home is compensable.
General principles to keep in mind:
- Courts from most jurisdictions analyze home offices the same as a traditional workplace where a determination must be made as to whether the injury arose out of and in the course of employment.
- As with all workers’ compensation cases in Iowa, both the arising out of and in the course of criteria need to be met. In most home office scenarios, the disputed issue is the “in the course of” criteria.
- In analyzing whether an injury occurred in the course of employment, the determinative question will be “whose business was the claimant pursuing at the time of his injury?” In other words, was the employee pursuing and benefitting the employer’s business or the employee’s personal business at the time of injury.
- In making the “in the course of” employment determination, compensation is more likely to be awarded if the home is a required workplace rather than merely for convenience or the employee’s choice; when there is no other business location; when the employer provides equipment used by the worker at home; when the worker was engaged in an activity that was at least incidentally related to the duties of employment; when the employee is subjected to a special risk; and when the injury occurred during the employee’s set work hours. Compensation is less likely to be awarded when the opposite is true.
- There are few Iowa cases that have addressed this precise issue. Examples of cases where compensation has been awarded in other jurisdictions include:
- an employee tripping over the dog while working;
- an injury occurring while spreading salt to de-ice the driveway in preparation to make a business delivery;
- an employee that was shot on his way home from a business meeting who worked from home for the convenience of his employer;
- amputation of fingers caused from frostbite when an employee could not get his mobile home door open, which doubled as a sales office;
- fatal heart attack while shoveling snow in preparation to leave his home and call on customers; and
- a fall down steps at home while carrying books the employer told the employee to take home.
- Examples of cases where compensation has not been awarded include:
- a school librarian’s fall on her icy driveway while getting to ready to go to work;
- an employee who slipped on his floor at home after he finished calculations for his employer;
- employee who worked on store records at home and fell down stairs on his way to breakfast while carrying work records; and
- route salesman who broke his wrist when he tripped on loose carpeting in his basement working from home, by his own choice and with no special benefit to his employer.
- As a general rule, injuries coming and going to a workplace are not compensable. However, if part of the at-home arrangement involves coming and going from home to the business office or other off-site locations, the chances that an injury will be compensable are much greater. This is especially true when the business furnishes the vehicle or covers the employee’s travel expenses.
- The more limitations placed upon the home space, work duties, work time, equipment provided, activities requiring going outside, (e.g. ice and snow shoveling cases), and coming and going from the home and company office, the more liability is limited.
Some of these factors cannot be controlled under the present circumstances due to COVID-19 restrictions and limitations, such as providing the option of working at the company’s office location. It remains to be seen what, if any affect, the Governor’s decrees will have on work at home liability. Still, it may be worthwhile to consider developing a remote work policy which identifies duty, time, and space limitations. More clearly identifying these policies will facilitate the compensability analysis, which is ultimately a fact question for the agency.
Workers' Compensation Team
Nyemaster’s dedicated workers’ compensation attorneys are continually reviewing the legal implications of COVID-19 for employers. Contact any attorney on the team with questions or to get assistance with your specific situation.
Nyemaster attorney Shelley Goodell compiled the information used in this article.