Don’t Trip Over the Dog! Employers Face New Challenges With Their Workers’ Compensation Programs With the Normalization of Remote Work Employees

The last two years brought changes that no one could have ever anticipated, and it is safe to say that life as we know it was forever changed by COVID-19.  From an employment perspective, many employees embraced the ability to trade in uncomfortable high heels, mind-numbing commutes, and bad office coffee for sweatpants, more opportunity for work/life flexibility, and sharing their workspaces with furry, four-legged co-workers.  As we enter 2022, many employees and employers have embraced and normalized remote work or even a hybrid work environment.  For many people, the “office” is no longer a single physical location, and “work” can be done just about anywhere.  But just as work can be done anywhere, workplace injuries can also now occur just about anywhere.  This places employers in an unexpected situation when a workplace injury occurs in a location outside of their control.

Some employees may now be working remotely on a long term basis in a hastily put together work area with less than ideal ergonomic conditions.  What if an employee develops back pain from working and sitting hunched over on a couch?  What if an employee develops carpal tunnel syndrome from working without a proper keyboard and chair?  What if an employee trips over a computer cord on the way to switch out a load of laundry between Zoom calls?  Is the employer liable?  Now, a workplace injury could occur just about anywhere, from the couch, to the beach, and beyond.

Generally, the Ohio workers’ compensation system is a no-fault system, and an injured employee may be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits if he or she is injured in the course of and arising out of the employment, if a “causal connection” exists between the injury and the employment.   Even prior to COVID-19, an employee could be covered by the Ohio workers’ compensation system if the employee was injured outside of a physical office, or even during a commute to or from a work location.  Today, with the workplace extending to new physical locations, employers should carefully evaluate any alleged remote work injury before approving workers’ compensation benefits.  The reality for all employers is that even a single workers’ compensation claim can substantially increase their workers’ compensation premium costs and expenses.

Employers should initially treat any alleged remote workplace injury just like they would treat any other workplace injury.  Employers should ask the remote employee to complete an incident report to document the alleged injury.  Employers should also gather as much information as possible from the employee regarding the nature of the work that was being done at the time of the injury and the environment where the injury occurred.  Employers should also be mindful that remote work injuries may also come with recording and reporting requirements for OSHA.  Employers should also be aware that freelancers and independent contractors are not covered by their Ohio workers’ compensation program, and these types of workers should obtain their own workers’ compensation coverage through the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.

The new challenges of remote work have even made their way to the Ohio legislature.  House Bill 447 is currently pending before the Ohio Senate, and this bill would eliminate at home injuries suffered by employees working from home when the injuries sustained are not a direct result of typical work.  This bill would help prevent frivolous workers’ compensation claims from employees who sustain non-work related injuries while working from home.  The employee must still prove that any alleged workplace injury: (1) arose out of the employment, (2) was caused by a special hazard of the employee’s employment activity, and (3) the injury happened during an activity that was for the exclusive benefit of the employer.

So employers – the next time your employee takes a conference call while mopping the kitchen floor, trips over their dog while going for a coffee refill, or even spends all day working from the couch while simultaneously binge watching an entire series on Netflix, think about your workers’ compensation liability. And as always, be sure to thank our good friend COVID-19 for once again expanding our horizons and adding new challenges that we never could have imagined!  If you have any questions about this or any other employment-related topic, please reach out to our Labor & Employment Group.