The New Normal and Work from Home Injuries
The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has radically altered how many Americans work. Many businesses have shifted to work-from-home arrangements for their employees whenever possible. The move toward remote work has several implications for workers’ compensation and workplace injuries.
Employers should note that even if an employee is working at home, the employee is able to sustain a work injury and make a claim the same as if they were working in the employer’s premises. It is not the employer’s control of the workplace that matters but the control of the employee that governs whether someone sustains a work injury for purposes of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act.
The most basic element of workers’ compensation law is that compensable work injuries must be sustained in the course and scope of employment. Under Pennsylvania’s law there are two general situations that place an employee in the course and scope. The first is when the employee is engaged in furthering the employer’s business. This can be both on and off the employer’s premises. The second is when , despite not engaged in furthering the business of the employer, the employees is required to be present at the employer’s premises by the job and sustains an injury through a condition of the premises or by operation of the employer’s business there. Both situations can be found in work-from-home situations.
An employee injured while actively working at home is covered by the Act and has sustained a compensable work injury. If the employee is actively furthering the job, he or she is within the scope of employment, regardless of location. WCAB (Slaugenhapt) v. United States Steel Corp., 376 A.2d 271, 273 (Pa.Cmwlth. 1977).
This is true even if the employee takes a momentary break from work to attend to personal needs, under what is termed the “personal comfort doctrine.” A short break to eat food, use the toilet or attend some other personal errand does not pull the home-working employee out of the scope of their employment. In the case of Verizon Pennsylvania, Inc. v. WCAB (Alston), 900 A.2d 440 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2006), the employee, who was working from a home office, received a telephone call from her boss while getting a drink in her kitchen. The employee was returning to the office to take the call when she fell down a flight of stairs, sustaining an injury. The Commonwealth Court found that the injury was within the course and scope of the employee’s employment, as she was on a work call and thus furthering the employer’s business at the moment of the fall. Id.
However, the personal comfort doctrine is broader the facts of Alston in that the employee does not need to be furthering the employer’s business at the moment of injury. Courts have found employees within the course and scope of employment when going outside to get lunch, US Airways v. WCAB (Dixon), 764 A.2d 635 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2000); an employee returning to a home office from an appointment, Jones v. WCAB (Rehabilitation Coordinators, Inc.), 489 A.2d 1006 (Pa.Cmwlth. 1985); and a police officer cleaning his weapon at home, City of Harrisburg v. WCAB (Gebhart), 616 A.2d 1369 (Pa. 1992). Each case may be somewhat fact-specific but as long as the activity does not stray far from the normal job duties and can be seen as furthering the employer’s business in some way, the employee will be found in the course and scope of employment.