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In a world where millions work from home, what does it mean to be injured “on the job”?

Janet Nguyen Jan 24, 2023
“One thing about workers’ comp — and I've been doing it for almost 50 years — is every time I think I've seen every possible way somebody could possibly get hurt, I'm surprised there’s another way,” says attorney Alan Pierce. PeopleImages/Getty Images

In a world where millions work from home, what does it mean to be injured “on the job”?

Janet Nguyen Jan 24, 2023
“One thing about workers’ comp — and I've been doing it for almost 50 years — is every time I think I've seen every possible way somebody could possibly get hurt, I'm surprised there’s another way,” says attorney Alan Pierce. PeopleImages/Getty Images

Millions of Americans have now shifted to at-home work due to the pandemic, with the ability to do their jobs from the comfort of their personal office or bedroom. But this shift raises questions about what they’re entitled to if they’re injured in their own home. Does it still count as a “workplace”? 

From 2019 to 2021, the number of people primarily working at home more than tripled from 9 million to almost 28 million, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

At-home work can pose challenges for both employees and employers, said James Gallen, a senior associate attorney at Evans & Dixon. 

“The absence of other workers may eliminate witnesses who could corroborate or contradict the employee’s claims of accident,” Gallen said. “Employees might be less likely to recognize an injury as work related, while employers may be more suspicious of claims occurring in environments with which they are unfamiliar and over which they have less control.” 

But experts say employees who suffer injuries during the course and scope of employment, even if they’re working from home, are generally entitled to compensation.

Workers’ compensation is mandatory for most employers in every state except Texas, said Raphael Castro, an attorney at LundyLaw. (In Texas, only public employers or employers who contract with the government are required to have it). 

“So if I’m an employer, and I incorporate my business within a state, even if I have one part-time employee, I’m required to have workers’ compensation insurance,” he said. He explained it’s like planning to drive a car; in nearly every state, you’re required to carry auto insurance if you do. 

If a worker receives workers’ compensation due to an on-the-job injury, and they’re unable to work, they’re typically entitled to medical bill coverage and about two-thirds of their wages at the time they were working, said Michael Duff, a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law. But the wages you received are typically capped at your state’s average wage. 

“The problem is when the work duties are kind of mixed in with non-work duties,” he said. “If the injury doesn’t result directly from the work environment, then it’s not a work-related injury, so there are ambiguities.” 

When work injuries happen under your own roof

Alan Pierce, an attorney at Pierce, Pierce & Napolitano who has dealt with cases involving injuries at home, said he once helped handle a case involving a coach for a high school tennis team in Massachusetts. One of the coach’s responsibilities entailed telephoning a match’s results to newspapers, which he found easier to do later in the day from his home, since the phone lines could be busy if he tried calling immediately after a match from the high school. 

One day, after a match, the coach went back to his home instead of going back to the high school. He had dinner, then walked downstairs to his home office with the intent of reporting the match’s results. As he was walking down the stairs, his tennis equipment bag caught on a shelf and he fell down and injured his knee. 

While a worker’s compensation judge initially denied the claim, Pierce handled an appeal and was able to get the case overturned, securing compensation for his client for the time he was out of work. 

Pierce said multiple factors play a role in helping determine the outcome of these cases, including where the person was when they got hurt, what they were doing, and whether it was part of their workday. 

“One thing about workers’ comp — and I’ve been doing it for almost 50 years — is every time I think I’ve seen every possible way somebody could possibly get hurt, I’m surprised there’s another way,” Pierce said. 

He noted that while you should generally be covered if you’re injured in the course and scope of your employment, every state has its own rules and decisions, so there’s no guarantee that the outcome of a case in Massachusetts would be the same outcome in, say, California. 

A new generation of job-related risks

American Public Media Research Lab did an analysis of OSHA workplace death data, finding that construction; transportation and warehousing; and agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting are the deadliest industries in the U.S. In 2021, there were 986 fatalities in the construction industry. Meanwhile, information and professional, scientific and technical services were among the least deadly. 

While the fields associated with working from home are arguably less dangerous, there are still health issues that can stem from remote work. 

People who have the ability to work from home, all the time, sit for about nine hours a day compared to about seven hours a day for those who can’t work from home, according to a paper from the Stanford Center on Longevity.  “When controlling for socioeconomic demographic variables, the ability to work from home emerges as a strong predictor for prolonged sedentary behaviors,” researchers wrote. 

Sedentary lifestyles have been linked to “an increased risk of diabetes, dementia and death from heart disease,” NPR reported. But a study from Columbia University published earlier this month found that walking just five minutes every half hour can significantly lower your blood sugar and blood pressure, helping to offset the negative health effects of prolonged sitting. 

Duff of Saint Louis University said workers’ compensation generally covers diseases caused by work, but disease cases are harder to prove than injury cases. 

Pierce said that cases involving sedentary activity that lead to general health issues would be “very difficult” to prove. “As in most every workers’ comp cases, the outcome depends on the strength of the medical evidence,” he said. 

Because you need medical records to back a claim, this is why documenting any health experiences you experience and getting treatment is crucial, Castro said. 

If the doctor treating the patient “is solidly in support of the claim, the easier it is to be successful,” Pierce said. But he added that insurance companies “have no problem producing contrary medical opinions,” which means the workers’ compensation judge will have to weigh the evidence. 

Pierce said a potential rise in injuries at home, now that more people are working remotely, does worry him. Injuries from desk jobs can also entail those caused by repetitive stress — like carpal tunnel, which is covered by workers’ compensation.

Regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Act do not require employers to provide their employees with ergonomic equipment. But they do have a general obligation “to keep the workplace free from recognized serious hazards, including ergonomic hazards,” according to the Society for Human Resource Management. 

Pierce said some employers may be irked that they are responsible for the risk of injury at home, but don’t have total control over the employee’s work space. “The flip side of that argument is, ‘Hey, you’re saving a ton of money on rent and other infrastructure,’” Pierce added. “So if people are using their own home, paying for their own lights and heat, and you’re benefiting from that, maybe there should be a little quid pro quo here.” 

In carpal tunnel cases, Pierce said he has to present evidence for what his client does day in and day out, hour by hour, and show that they spend most of their time on keyboard activities. Many people still use their computers after work, which can complicate these cases. 

Although he doesn’t think any case is “easy” to win, Pierce said repetitive stress cases have become a little bit less difficult to win over the past dozen years or so. 

“The world has sort of become acclimated to the fact that you can have daily traumas,” he said. 

When reporting the problem feels fraught

Many employees are afraid of reporting an injury — whether they work from home or at an office — because they’re concerned about the possibility of losing their job as a result, said Raphael F. Castro from LundyLaw. But he said there are safeguards against that. “As a whole, an employer can’t retaliate against an employee for filing a workers’ compensation claim,” he added. 

Even those in positions of relative power and leverage may be afraid to pursue an injury claim, like actress and singer Kristin Chenoweth. While filming “The Good Wife” back in 2012, she says she was hit by lighting equipment, leading to a fractured skull, broken teeth and cracked ribs, among other injuries. 

In an interview last week on “Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen,” she discussed the incident and said she regretted not taking legal action. 

“I didn’t do it out of fear and anxiety, so don’t ever let fear ruin your life,” Chenoweth said.  

While workers’ compensation covers employees, there are people who are left out, such as independent contractors, said Duff of Saint Louis University. 

“Unless a worker has their own disability policy, it’s possible that they’re out of luck,” said Duff, although he noted that some of these workers may qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance if they meet the requirements. 

When it comes to deaths that occur on the clock, like a fatal heart attack, Pierce said he would have to show there is a connection “between the physical or emotional exertions in the workplace” and the heart attack. 

“So in the case of an unexplained death, if they were at their workstation at their home, at the computer, and they were found slumped over, there would be a presumption that it was work-related,” he said. “But that would be an easy presumption for the insurance company or the employer to rebut.”

Pierce explained that if someone dies at home, it may be due to an underlying illness or the person may have had certain risk factors, making it difficult to prove the link between work and death. 

Castro said he once had a case involving a warehouse worker who had a heart attack as she was operating a forklift. Eyewitnesses said she had a heart attack, fell to the floor and suffered a hemorrhage. 

Castro explained that her work duties and responsibilities did not cause the heart attack, but she suffered a fall as a result of doing her job at work. So while the heart attack was not covered by workers’ compensation, her hemorrhage was. 

What to do if it happens to you

When people experience work injuries, the first thing Castro tells people is to seek medical treatment.  

“You just have to make sure that your health is number one. So if you need to get medical treatment, go to the hospital, go to urgent care,” he said. 

He and other experts also advise reporting any injuries you think are work-related to your employer immediately.

“What most workers’ compensation statutes require is that you provide notice of injury to your employer within a certain amount of time,” Duff of Saint Louis University said. 

Different areas have a range of reporting timelines: In Pennsylvania, you should give notice within 120 days. In California, it’s 30 days. 

Duff said as more people work at home, the more we might see complicated issues surrounding the causation of an injury. 

He pointed out there was a case in Germany where a court ruled in 2021 that an employee who fell as he was on his way from his bed to his home office was protected by insurance. 

Duff said some people might take the position that certain injuries shouldn’t be covered by workers’ compensation since they’re too hard to monitor if you work from home. Perhaps they’ll “cheat” the system, some critics would say. 

“But the reason we have workers’ compensation in the first place is that we’re trying to find a way to get people covered,” he said. “Because if somebody is injured at work and they can’t work, they’re disabled. They have no income. I mean, it’s very simple.” 

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