By Shannon A. Peters, ARM, Senior Manager, Altus Corporate Risk
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, many companies were transitioning to a more remote workforce. There are many benefits to having employees work from home, such as increased productivity, cost savings and higher employee loyalty and retention. However, it gets tricky to handle workers’ compensation claims when incidents happen outside of a controlled office environment.
Here are some things to consider when thinking about workers’ compensation and remote workers.
From a coverage standpoint, workers’ compensation applies the same regardless of where the employee is working. Although injuries can be similar between in-office and remote workers, the telecommuter class code is typically lower than the standard clerical class code, primarily because the severity of those claims tend to be lower. The work environment is a contributing factor; remote workers are simply more familiar with their home environment than they are within an office environment.
On the flip-side, remote worker claims often require more investigation and have varying outcomes. Unlike in an office, no one is around to witness injuries or improper working conditions, so claims to prove that the injury is work-related are typically more involved and complicated.
Workers’ comp claims from remote workers often align with in-office claims. The most common claims for both scenarios are slips, trips, falls, wrist, back and shoulder pain. Where they may differ are the causes of or contributing factors to those incidents. As an example, employees may not have a proper ergonomic workstation set up at home, which may cause injury. Remote employees also tend to work longer hours, which can result in physical fatigue, and subsequently, a higher incident rate. In addition, remote workers may be more prone to distractions such as children or pets that could cause trips and falls.
In a recent and interesting workers’ compensation case, a remote employee in Arizona was injured tripping over her dog as she grabbed a cup of coffee. She sustained knee, hip and shoulder injuries and was awarded workers’ comp benefits. Her employer later appealed and the court determined that the risk of tripping over her dog did not arise from her employer or scope of her employment, and the award was reversed.
However, in another case, a remote employee fell down his stairs after refilling his coffee. Although this action was not directly work-related, the court determined that it was within the scope of what an employee might do within the office and awarded him benefits.
Whether your employees are working from a desk in your office or at home, it’s important to make sure they have accommodations to make their working environment comfortable and, more importantly, safe.
Remote Worker Considerations
If you have a large number of employees working from home, you’ll have many things to contemplate. The more significant considerations will center around the work-from-home environment and keeping in contact with employees.
Talk internally about what an ideal at-home workspace should look like and do your best to provide those accommodations to employees who need them. Providing an ergonomic chair or a computer stand, for instance, will mitigate the risk of injury and reduce the severity of a potential claim.
Unfortunately, you can’t always control the environment your employees are working in. However, there are several elements you may want to include in your plan:
- Ensure employees’ homes are safe by conducting an in-home inspection or having employees agree to do a home survey
- Require employees have a dedicated work area to minimize the likelihood of claims
- Confirm employee’s homeowner policy is in place and up to date
- Shield against potential cyberattacks by making sure all devices and equipment are protected
- Provide employees with the appropriate telecommuting tech tools to communicate and collaborate with the team
Checking in with Employees
Staying vigilant and checking in with employees often will help to mitigate workers’ compensation claims––especially if you’re just starting to transition to a remote work environment. Holding periodic check-ins with HR can ensure employees are comfortable and everything is working properly. This affords employees the opportunity to request special accommodations before minor pains turn into a more serious injury and subsequent claim.
Checking in also allows remote workers to express any other stresses they are experiencing that you may be able to resolve. For example, if a remote worker feels detached from their team, checking in can help you identify that issue and implement improved collaboration or work-related social activity efforts, boosting morale.
There will almost always be unknown elements of workers’ compensation claims that happen in the home. Was your employee truly hurt during the course and scope of employment and during work hours? Was there other non-work related, extenuating circumstances that lead to the actual injury? Most of the time, the truth will become clear after a claim is submitted and investigated. It’s always best, however, to establish work from home procedures, maintain open and honest communication and overall, keep employees comfortable and happy from the start.