Following Governor Cuomo’s PAUSE order in March, many employers transitioned to “remote work” and “telecommuting” arrangements so their employees could continue to work from home. Although the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus has slowed in our area and New York State has begun to reopen, many people continue to work from home. A number of employers have indicated that they expect to continue remote-work through the end of the year and beyond – and in some cases permanently.
The Workers’ Compensation Law generally covers accidents and injuries that happen in the workplace. But what if “the workplace” is also home? We looked at some past cases to help think about situations in which people who are injured while working from home might – and might not – be covered by workers’ compensation.
One thing that’s important to keep in mind is that the “new normal,” where large numbers of people are working from home, is significantly different from the past. Previous cases usually involve situations where working from home was the exception, not the rule. The current environment, where remote work is widespread and required by many employers, is fundamentally different and it is likely that new legal rules will develop about coverage. However, understanding how the Courts have ruled on an issue before is critical to knowing what proof they may require in the future.
The General Rule for Workers’ Compensation Coverage
The Workers’ Compensation Law covers accidents that “arise out of and in the course of employment.” This generally means that the accident must happen (1) while someone is working; and (2) because of the work.
Because the law was designed to protect workers, the courts have taken a broad view of both of those requirements. Although travel to and from work is not generally considered to be “in the course of employment,” there are a number of exceptions that extend coverage to workers who are not on the employer’s property. Similarly, if a worker is in the course of the employment, then an accident that happens during a short or minor deviation from work is still considered to “arise out of the employment.”
The Home Office Exception
In deciding whether a worker who is injured at home is “in the course of the employment,” the Courts have created a “home office exception” which looks at the facts of the case to decide whether the home has essentially become part of the employer’s premises. In the past, an accident at home could be covered by this exception if (1) the worker was involved in a specific work assignment at home that was being performed for the employer’s benefit; or (2) there was a regular pattern of work performed at home.
Some of the factors that are considered in deciding whether the home office exception applies are (1) how much work is done from home; (2) how often work is done from home; (3) whether there is work equipment in the home; and (4) whether there are special circumstances that make it necessary for someone to work from home.
In one case, the Court found that a record label executive who was killed in a car accident while travelling home from his office was covered by the home office exception. The evidence showed that he had the employer’s recording tapes with him, the employer’s recording equipment was at his home, and that he frequently edited tapes at home as part of his job.
However, in another case, a researcher who slipped and fell in his kitchen while working from his employer-issued laptop was not covered because the evidence showed that he only worked from home once a month and that it was for his own convenience, rather than a benefit to the employer. Other cases have found that the home office exception does not apply to workers who perform “an occasional piece of work at home at his employer’s direction or even with his employer’s permission or knowledge.”
Nature of the Activities Performed at Home
If a worker proves that they qualify for the “home office exception” and that an accident at home arose in the course of their employment, they must still meet the second part of the legal test – showing that the accident also arose out of the employment.
The courts have long held that if an accident occurs on the employer’s property, it will be found to arise out of the employment even if the worker was taking a short break for a personal activity (such as a bathroom break, going to the office kitchen for a cup of coffee, etc). However, in one case, the Workers’ Compensation Board reached the opposite conclusion for someone who was working at home. The Board ruled that when someone is working from home, they are only entitled to compensation if the accident occurs while they are “actually performing employment duties” and not if it happens during the kind of short break that would have been covered if they were in the employer’s office. In other cases, the Board has also taken a very narrow view of whether injuries while working at home qualify as work-related for workers’ compensation purposes.
The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic
It is not clear how the Board will respond to the dramatic increase in work-from-home arrangements that has resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. On one hand, it is likely that many workers will now qualify for the “home office exception” because they are working at home full-time, often using equipment provided by the employer to do so.
On the other hand, the frequent overlap between work and personal activities when someone is working at home will probably encourage many employers and insurance companies to contest claims filed by those workers. Considering the circumstances that led to the dramatic expansion in remote-work arrangements, we hope that the Board will use the same standard for workers who are injured while working at home as it does for those who are injured on the employer’s premises.
If you have any questions about work-related injury or illness, please feel free to call any of our six offices or to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.