Telecommuting Employees: Is Getting Hurt on the Job but at Home a Compensable WC Claim?
Prior to the pandemic, less than 20% of nonprofit organizations allowed just 50% or more of their employees to work remotely from home. Today, that number has increased by a whopping 146%, with nearly half of all organizations allowing better than 50% of their staff to work off-site, according to a recent 2021 report conducted by BKD, a nonprofit advisory service.
As with many other industries, the pandemic forced much of the nonprofit sector to shift a large percentage of its in-person workforce to a work-from-home environment—a trend that will likely continue long after the COVID-19 crisis ends. But while your nonprofit clients are learning how to best navigate and adapt to this “new normal,” they also need to be aware of risk exposures created by employees who are telecommuting that could leave them open to workers’ compensation (WC) claims.
Compensable or not compensable?
In order for a WC claim to meet the minimum requirements for compensability, the injury or illness the employee experiences must arise out of and in the course of employment. Of course, determining whether a claim is compensable requires proper verification – a process that is typically easy to do when staff is working in-person and on-site. However, for employees who are working from home, the verification process can create unique challenges.
For example, does an employee who, while walking to her at-home workstation, trips over the family dog and suffers a back injury have a compensable claim? What about an employee who, during established at-home business hours, breaks an ankle while bringing in groceries from the garage? As these examples illustrate, when an employee is working remotely from home, it is possible for accidental injuries to occur both in and out of the employee’s course of employment. This can make it difficult to verify WC claims, as there are often causal connections between the conditions under which the work is performed and the resulting injury.
If your nonprofit clients have employees who are working from home, it’s important that they minimize their potential liability for WC claims. This can include:
- Establishing remote-work claim reporting protocols. All work-related accidents must be reported and documented in a timely manner. In addition to on-site employees, make sure that staff who are telecommuting understand the specific steps to take when reporting an on-the-job injury or illness.
- Thoroughly investigating all claim situations. For example, was the alleged injury unrelated to work, was it associated with an already aggravated preexisting condition or did it occur outside of regularly assigned business hours?
- Establishing work-from-home parameters. Define in writing what it is that constitutes a work-related activity, and be specific about what activities are considered outside the course and scope of employment that could be considered a deviation. Define what falls under approved office equipment, “in-office” hours, and lunch and break times.
As nonprofits and other industries continue to offer telecommuting work settings, the rules that regulate WC insurance will likely change, putting more responsibility on employers. However, a simple approach for nonprofits moving forward is to always consider an at-home workplace an extension of the organization. This requires taking on the responsibility of defining what constitutes a work area or work-related task and what doesn’t. And while WC insurance can step in to help mitigate losses for employers and help employees who genuinely have a compensable claim, too many claim losses will negatively impact the organization’s bottom line.
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