September 4, 2020
A legal perspective on injuries while working from home
By Tom Davern, Esq., Senior Defense Counsel with Lynn, Scharfenberg and Hollick
It can be challenging to determine whether an employee’s injury is considered work related, even in the typical work environment. Working from home can present unique workers’ compensation issues due to the inevitable mix of work-related and personal activities.
When an employee sustains an injury while engaged in work activities at home, it is a compensable workers’ compensation injury. The standard rule is that if you’re engaged in work activities at home, this will be considered the same as working at the office for the purposes of workers’ compensation. The standard compensability analysis used for each state applies to the home office pretty much the same as it would in the actual office. In Minnesota, you look to see whether the injury happened in the course and scope of employment (time and place) and whether it arose out of the employment (work-related connection). However, it can be a challenging line to draw in the home office environment when you mix in child care, laundry and leisure throughout the workday.
For example, consider a situation where your employee is injured while shoveling the driveway after getting a foot of snow the night before. If the employee needed to clear the driveway to go out on a sales call, it would likely be considered a work-related injury. However, what about a situation where there is only a half inch of snow in the driveway and the employee still decides to shovel before the sales call? A defense could be raised that the employee was outside of the course and scope of employment because the driveway did not need to be shoveled to get the vehicle out on the road. The employee elected to complete a personal task that was not required in order to continue or further a work purpose.
Injuries during ‘personal comfort’ breaks
SFM’s core states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota all recognize the personal comfort doctrine in some form and to some degree. This means that injuries that occur on the premises during the workday while the employee is attending to personal needs (taking a break) are potentially compensable workers’ compensation claims. The personal comfort doctrine transfers to the home office. The big question is: "Was the injury truly incidental to an authorized break, or did the employee engage in a personal task that removed them from workers’ compensation protection?" This is one area of the law that justifies the use of the legal cliché “case by case” basis.
In Minnesota, an injury was held to be compensable when an employee fell down the stairs after walking from his home office to his kitchen for coffee. At the same time, there is a line an at-home worker can cross that would take the employee outside of the protection of workers’ compensation. So, while incidental injuries incurred during lunch or a break may be compensable, it is not necessarily a work injury.
Imagine an employee decided to hang shingles on a lunch break and fell off the roof. This would be a denied claim, as the employee went outside of the course and scope of employment by engaging in a dangerous personal activity that had no connection to the employment. Another example of a potential denial would be if an employee came down with carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of playing video games every day during breaks. I would argue that this was personal in nature and not an activity subject to the personal comfort doctrine. The pivotal question is whether the employee was truly engaged in a personal comfort activity or had deviated from the employment to engage in an unrelated household chore or activity with no work connection.
Employers responsible to provide safe work environment, regardless of where
Since the home is seen as an extension of the workplace, this means that an employer could also be held liable for a cumulative injury due to a home office setup that’s not ergonomic. Obviously, employers have less control over employees’ home office environments. I would not be surprised to see an increase in cumulative back injury claims due to employees sitting in bad chairs for eight hours a day. It may be a good idea to be proactive with communication with your employees regarding at home ergonomic issues as it could potentially save a workers’ compensation claim down the road.
Navigating the legal and safety issues surrounding working from home can be challenging. Your SFM account team and the attorneys at Lynn, Scharfenberg and Hollick are here to help.