WORKERS’ COMPENSATION ISSUES ARISE FROM COVID-19 TELECOMMUTING
The COVID-19 pandemic suddenly created hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of new telecommuters (aka “teleworkers”) across California and the United States. Some telecommuters may be working from already established, safe workspaces in their homes. However, many are likely working from makeshift workstations in dining rooms, spare bedrooms, garages, and other less-than-ideal “home office” setups. These telecommuters are also potentially surrounded by numerous distractions during the workday that include spouses, children, pets, and related disruptions that may make a home office potentially unsafe.
Generally, California’s workers’ compensation scheme will apply to any injury sustained by an employee “[w]here, at the time of the injury, the employee is performing service growing out of and incidental to his or her employment and is acting within the course of his or her employment.” Labor Code Section 3600(a). A compensable injury may occur away from the employee’s traditional worksite. Therefore, employees who are now telecommuting from potentially unsafe home offices may file workers’ compensation claims if they sustain an injury while working at home.
Imagine, for example, an employee slips on a child’s toy left in the kitchen, or an employee burns his or her hand on the stove during an off-duty meal period, or an employee makes a claim for a carpal tunnel injury after working from a non-ergonomic home workstation. Depending upon the facts and circumstances, an employer may be liable for an employee’s injury suffered at home, whether on-duty or not. The case law concerning telecommuting is underdeveloped, but there is some guidance about injuries sustained while off-duty and at home. For example, in an unpublished decision, Warner v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, 2011 WL 6762898 at *5 (2011), the court of appeal held an employee’s injury suffered while trimming wisteria bushes while he was on call at home was a compensable workers’ compensation injury. Similarly, in Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (Tidwell), 2017 WL 5713227 at *2-3 (2017), a disabled employee’s injury sustained by the employee in her own home restroom was compensable because the home was the employee’s worksite.
Now that employees are working at home under varying conditions, employers should review telecommuting and work-from-home policies. At a minimum, telecommuting polices should affirmatively require employees to keep designated remote work areas in which the employee will perform work. The work area should be free from hazards, and employees should be required to comply with all of the employer’s workplace safety and health standards. The policy should also require that injuries suffered while working from home should be reported through the same procedures as workplace injuries. Employers should remind employees how to obtain necessary work from home equipment such as computers, accessories, and software necessary to do the employee’s job. And, employers should remind employees about reasonable expense reimbursement policies should the employee need to purchase necessary work equipment that the employer does not provide.
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