Remote Employees and Workers' Compensation: What Companies Should Know

Posted in Legal Alerts on February 22, 2023

The fact that employees are not physically at their work site does not mean that the potential for workers’ compensation claims is eliminated. In some ways, there is even more of a risk that an employee may be injured because the company cannot supervise how they do their work to the same extent they would if they were on a work site. Even with detailed instructions about work safety, employees may still put themselves at risk for injury. Thanks to the rise in remote work, there may be more complex issues surrounding workers' compensation claims now compared to when most employees did their work at a work site.

Telework was already increasing throughout Florida prior to the pandemic. Now that a booming economy has forced employers into more intense competition for workers, companies have to be more flexible when recruiting and retaining employees. Remote work is important to many employees who got used to performing their job duties from home during pandemic lockdowns.

Remote Work Injuries Still Fall Under Workers’ Compensation

Employees may receive workers’ compensation benefits for work-related injuries. Workers’ compensation benefits are not just limited to blue-collar workers who have more physically demanding jobs. White-collar employees may also suffer a work-related injury. These injuries can be in several categories, including:

  • Repetitive stress injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome from typing
  • Back and neck injuries caused by an employee sitting during the day
  • Slips and falls while the employee is doing their job

One key line from a recent workers’ compensation case states that remote work “imported the work environment into the claimant’s home and the claimant’s home into the work environment.” In this specific case, a court found that an injured worker was not entitled to compensation when they tripped over their dog on their way to get coffee, however there are many circumstances where similar injuries might be compensable. In some ways, remote work swaps out the dangers of a busy office for the dangers of an employee’s home.

Companies Do Not Have Much Control Over How an Employee Works from Home

Over time, an employee may suffer cumulative injuries that are related to working from home. They are providing their own furniture, and they are responsible for their own ergonomics. If the employees were in the office, the employer would be able to provide for some degree of uniformity between employees. The new work-from-home environment eliminates that type of potential control.

Companies often give workers training on how to safely perform their duties from home. Even with safety instruction, the employer does not physically supervise their employees for their entire shift when they are working remotely. A supervisor cannot see how the employee is physically working. Thus, remote employees can suffer injuries the same as on-site employees can.

Injuries Suffered in the Name of Personal Comfort Can Be Compensated

Another complicating factor is the personal comfort doctrine. Remote workers are entitled to take time and perform functions that are vital to their own personal comfort on the job, even when they are working from home. For example, if the employee is getting up to get themselves a cup of coffee, and they fall and hurt their back, the injury could be considered within the scope of their employment.

Injuries Suffered When Working from Home May Be Far More Legally Complex

However, there are still some factual scenarios in which an injury at home suffered during work hours may not be work-related. Insurance carriers can and should ask extensive questions about the injury and how it occurred. Everything will depend on the specific facts of the accident or injury.

In some ways, workers’ compensation claims may be even more complex when the injured worker was remote. There may be more questions about how the worker was hurt and whether they really suffered a work-related injury. The employer often does not see what happens while an employee working remotely goes about their work-related tasks, so they may not know or see how an injury occurred. For example, an employee can hurt their back when they are reaching to plug in their computer, and it could be considered a work-related injury. However, if the employee hurt their back when they were getting dressed, it may not be.

Thus, evidentiary issues can be thorny in the remote working environment. It is the injured worker’s responsibility to prove that they were acting on behalf of their employer at the time that they were hurt. Insurance companies may deny claims if they do not see sufficient evidence to show that the injury was work-related. Since the remote worker is usually by themselves at home, there may be more factual disputes that come into play in workers’ compensation cases arising from injuries suffered while employees work remotely.

Advice for Companies with Employees Working Remotely

Given the potential for remote employees to suffer injuries while on the job, employers should provide their employees detailed training on best practices for working from home. In addition, employers should have their own policies and procedures for handling workplace injuries in the remote environment. However, employees can still likely receive workers’ compensation benefits, even when their own inattention to the best work-from-home practices causes their injuries. Workers’ compensation does not depend on fault, and the employee could receive benefits even if they were negligent themselves.

Tips for Workers’ Compensation Insurance Carriers

Insurance companies should continue to develop their policies and knowledge in dealing with workers' compensation claims for remote work injuries. However, the shift to a remote or hybrid workplace will not change a core legal tenet of workers’ compensation claims - that the employee is entitled to benefits for a work-related injury. Nonetheless, caselaw regarding payment of workers’ compensation benefits for injuries suffered while working remotely is likely to evolve as telework becomes more permanent and more at-home injuries occur.