It's no secret that the workplace is changing. Today'stechnology enables employees to work from anywhere in the world,while simultaneously staying connected 24/7. For telecommutingemployees, this presents unprecedented freedom in choosing where towork, and a significant portion are taking advantage of this perk.A 2015Gallup poll shows that 37 percent of American workerstelecommute at least occasionally.

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For employers, there are significant benefits to embracing the“work-from-anywhere” culture.

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Allowing employees to work from home helps to:

  • Attract talent from a wider geographic area
  • Boost worker retention
  • Lower fixed costs
  • Increase worker productivity

Telecommuting can also present unique challenges, including onethat most employers don't typically consider: the need for Workers'Compensation insurance to cover employees working from home orother venues not controllable by the business.

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While some might not consider telecommuters to be a significantWorkers' Compensation risk, the reality is that many employers areacting on blind faith about their employees' work set-ups,particularly home offices. They could also be underestimating theirexposure.

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There are numerous scenarios in which employers could be foundliable for injuries that occur in or near a home office. Forinstance, if a diligent employee wakes in the middle of the night,checks email on her smartphone while walking down a flight of stepsand falls, would that be considered a work-related injury? If anemployee leaves his briefcase in his car, trips over his dog andbreaks his leg while returning to the garage, can there be a claimagainst the employer? Is the employer liable if an employeedevelops deep vein thrombosis from sitting at his desk for hours onend and dies during work hours because of a blood clot?

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While the ultimate coverage varies by state, scenarios likethose listed above have been ruled compensable. However, statesdefine a Worker's Compensation claim by saying the injury “mustarise out of and occur within the course of employment.” The phrasewithin the course of employment can refer to the time, place andcircumstances of the injury. If someone's working from home, theycould theoretically claim that any injury suffered in their home iswork-related.

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Even so, certain scenarios are not likely to be consideredcompensable:

  • An employee leaves the home office and is injured during anon-work-related errand.

  • An employee takes a break from work and gets hurt vacuuming thehouse or cleaning the garage.

  • An employee who sets up a remote office in a local coffee shopgoes shopping next door and is injured in a slip-an-fallaccident.

Here are best practices for creating a buttoned-upwork-from-home policy:

  • Physically inspect the employee's home office to make sure it issafe.

  • Clearly define the physical boundaries of the home office. Ifthe boundaries are not well-established, an employer might beliable for an injury that happens anywhere on the employee'sproperty. If the employee has a desk job and works at a computermost of the time, you don't want to be liable for a mishap thatoccurs in the garage.

  • Employers should set specific work hours and establish setbreaks where possible. Without this policy, an employee could arguethat an injury occurring at any time of day or night iswork-related.

  • Specifically describe the scope of the employee's activities.This reduces the possibility a clerical employee could successfullypresent a claim for doing a physical activity while in the home.The policy should make it clear that activities falling outside theemployee's job description are not the employer'sresponsibility.

  • The employer should ensure that the employee's desk, chair andthe rest of the office set-up is ergonomically designed and similarto protections afforded employees at the office.

  • Employers should make it clear to employees that working fromhome is a privilege, not a right, and that the employer can takeaway the privilege at any time.

Allowing employees to work from home makes good business sensefor many employers. However, it is not a free pass for the employerto ignore possible liability. Employers that offer workers theopportunity to work from home need to take a 360-degree view ofwhat can go wrong, and approach telecommuting with their eyes wideopen. They need to be vigilant in understanding and addressingworkers compensation exposure relative to telecommuters…before aclaim is ever filed.

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