Working from home is not a new practice. There were people spending some or all of their working hours at home well before COVID-19, and both the percentage of the workforce and work-from-home hours had been rising for some time. But for obvious reasons, the number of people telecommuting skyrocketed during the pandemic. “While remote work was vital to keeping businesses functioning and employees safe when the crisis was at its peak, the new dynamic led to some questions about business operations that linger today,” says Peter Shelley, president at business insurer biBERK. “One of them concerns workers’ comp for remote employees.”
Workers’ compensation insurance is vital for workers and their families and is mandated for nearly all companies with employees. It covers costs incurred as a result of work-related accidents or illnesses, such as:
- Medical bills
- Lost wages during treatment and recovery
- Death benefit
Generally speaking, workers’ comp covers incidents that “arise out of” a worker’s employment without any specifics on where work activities are being conducted. In other words, if an employee suffers an injury while completing company work tasks at home, they may have a valid workers’ comp claim.
Interpreting Workers’ Comp Laws and Their Application in Home Settings
Workers’ comp laws and insurance policies were developed at a time, long ago, when work was performed almost exclusively at a company’s place of business. That extended beyond company property if workers were, for example, at a remote jobsite. But that was as far as it went.
In that scenario, employers were well-positioned to monitor employee activities and encourage safe behaviors that limited injury risks. Accidents still occurred, of course, but companies could, at least, take actions meant to reduce the number and severity of incidents. Even on remote job sites, there typically were other employees around to reinforce safety rules and monitor their peers to some degree.
An employee working from home today has far less oversight and, consequently, far more leeway in how they do their work. As a result, determining and administering workers’ comp rights and benefits is much more challenging now than in the past.
If an employee sprains their ankle walking across the room to retrieve a work-related document from a printer, that’s a fairly clear-cut worker’s compensation claim. But what if an injury occurs while they’re taking a bathroom break? Walking down the street to get their mail? Taking their dog outside?
Those scenarios aren’t nearly as straightforward. How states interpret workers’ compensation insurance laws and guidelines varies. However, many activities tend to be addressed by what’s called the personal comfort doctrine.
It says that employees should be covered if they’re hurt during activities like getting a snack from the kitchen during their workday. On the other hand, a court might disallow a claim for an injury related to animal-care activities. The reasoning is that tending to a pet’s, child’s, or other person’s needs isn’t related, in any way, to someone’s job responsibilities.
Tips for Minimizing Work-From-Home Injuries
While employers can’t observe or control what workers are doing at home, they can establish a work-from-home framework that helps reduce the chances that someone will be injured while working.
For example, business owners or managers can (and should):
- Develop and document a general telecommuting policy. What are the allowed working hours? What are the duties for each job function? What are the requirements for attending virtual meetings, touching base with managers and peers, etc.? How is working time tracked?
- Set expectations for the home work environment. Employees should understand that their ability to work from home is contingent upon, for instance, having a sturdy desk and chair in a room with proper lighting and a door they can close when participating in work-related calls or video conferences.
- Create a home workspace safety checklist. This list should address common risks. For example, you might require employees to secure all power cords out of walkways, avoid overloading electrical outlets, and ensure that their workstation is ergonomic to prevent muscle and eye strain.
- Provide guidelines about interactions with other home occupants during work hours. Remote workers will likely cross paths with their partners, children, and others during the workday. Still, it’s reasonable for employers to expect that interactions are kept brief, and that work is the employee’s priority during work hours, barring any urgent issues or unavoidable temporary distractions.
Educate Yourself About Workers’ Comp and Remote Employees
“One thing you should not do when it comes to workers’ compensation for remote workers is make assumptions,” adds Shelley. “It’s crucial that you and your employees understand all the rights and responsibilities related to workers’ comp coverage.”
Two entities you should consult to ensure you are well informed are your state government’s workers’ compensation oversight body and your workers’ compensation insurance provider. The former can provide details on what is required of employers regarding coverage generally and remote workers specifically. The latter can answer questions about the specifics of your policy, such as how employees file a workers’ comp claim.
Remote Work and Other Types of Business Insurance
Companies should keep in mind that allowing employees to work from home also increases certain other risks.
For example, increasing the number of people accessing your computer network remotely increases the opportunities for cybercriminals to gain unauthorized access to intellectual property, sensitive information, etc. Consequently, you should consider getting cyber liability insurance if you don’t already have it.
Similarly, having more equipment like laptop computers being used away from the office may increase the risk of damage or theft. You must have the right coverage with the right limits to protect your assets.
Protecting Your Business Wherever You Do Business
Allowing employees to work from home benefits companies in many ways, from attracting top talent to increasing worker satisfaction and improving employee retention. However, one of the keys to successfully utilizing a dispersed workforce is having an insurance strategy that protects your business wherever you operate.
The best way to ensure your company has adequate coverage is to work with the right insurance company. It should be one that understands the challenges posed by remote work and functions not just as an insurance provider but as an insurance strategy partner.
Rakesh Gupta is chief operating officer at biBERK, part of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway company. biBERK specializes in commercial insurance for small businesses. In his role, Gupta focuses on simplifying the insurance buying experience using technology and process innovations that make it easier for small business owners to get the coverage they need.