Working from Home During COVID-19—and Beyond… A New, Broader Lens On Workers' Compensation
The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, causing many employees to transition from their "normal" workplaces to remote employment. As working from home is likely to continue to a great extent in the future, many issues need to be considered regarding Workers' Compensation coverage for at-home injuries.
Workers' Compensation is a no-fault insurance covering injuries on the job. "When your home is your office, a case can be made that many injuries that happen at home are covered by the California's Workers' Compensation system," says Richard Felton, a partner in the law firm of Gordon, Edelstein, Krepack, Grant, Felton & Goldstein, LLP (GEK). "Our present situation with the pandemic poses a unique question, which is what constitutes a workplace injury during work hours when there is no time set limiting your hours working from home?"
Working From Home Presents Unique Legal Challenges
Injuries that occur while performing work duties are covered by Workers' Compensation whether the injury is a specific injury or a cumulative trauma injury (injuries occurring over time). Due to the pandemic, many working at home "make do" with the equipment or office setup that they have, creating a shift in the types of injuries that are occurring. "Considering that many places of employment have ergonomic work stations and equipment, which is usually not the case for home offices, it makes sense that doctors, chiropractors and physical therapists are seeing a significant increase in continuous trauma injuries as a result of repetitive motion, overuse and stress of the job," says Felton. Many of these types of injuries include rotator cuff problems, pinched nerves in the neck and back, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, and bursitis. "An employee has the right to pursue at-home work injuries covered by Workers' Compensation just as if one was working at the office."
Understanding the Personal Comfort Doctrine
Employees are not just covered by Workers' Compensation when they are performing work duties from home. Under the Personal Comfort Doctrine, injuries may be covered when an employee is injured not performing work duties. For example, if an employee who is working at home slips and falls while getting a glass of water or going to the bathroom, then according to this doctrine, such an injury is compensable if he or she was doing something necessary for personal welfare and part of "normal working conditions."
As Felton explains, in a recent case a wheelchair-bound applicant was injured while working at home. She sustained the injury while using the bathroom, which was set up to meet her needs. The court ruled that the employer allowed her to work at home to accommodate her disability and that the injury was within the bounds of the Personal Comfort Doctrine because it happened during her work day while fulfilling a basic personal need, even though she was not required to work at home.
Injuries During CommutesAlthough generally injuries during regular commutes to and from work are not covered by Workers' Compensation under the Going and Coming Rule, an exception to this rule is when you're traveling from one worksite to another. "If your home is a 'second office' and the commute is from one office to another, such injuries may be covered by Workers' Compensation," says Felton.
Because the pandemic has changed the way many of us work, the Workers' Compensation laws will have to address many new issues for a large part of the workforce working at home. Therefore, according to Felton, it is vital for an employee who is injured while working from home or during a commute from a home office to a "regular office" to contact an experienced Workers' Compensation attorney. Depending on the specific facts of the injury, there may be a valid claim for Workers' Compensation benefits. At GEK, we have more than 40 years of experience in handling Workers' Compensation claims, and we are available to evaluate these claims to insure that injured workers get the benefits to which they are entitled and the law allows."