What The Telecommuting Trend Could Mean for Florida Workers’ Comp Claims

As companies continue to adapt to COVID-19, it is evident that one of the long-lasting effects of the novel coronavirus will be the increased number of permanent work from home accommodations.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 33% of U.S. workers are “always” working remotely, while 25% are now “sometimes” working remotely. The accessibility and ease of communicating with co-workers has made telecommuting a viable and potentially cost-saving option for companies. That said, with an increased number of employees in Florida and around the country working from home, we can inevitably expect that the number of at-home “work accidents” will subsequently rise.

While telecommuting accommodations may be beneficial for Florida employers and employees alike in the long run, it is important to note that certain work from home set-ups come with their own set of potential workers’ compensation liabilities.

In a situation where the employee is working from home, the employee typically has the burden of proving that an injury is work related. Specifically, the employee would have to evidence that the activity that he or she was engaging in at the time of injury was in the interest of the employer. If, at the time of the injury, the employee was engaging in an activity for a personal benefit or was not furthering the business of the employer in some way, then the alleged accident would not be compensable as it did not occur within the “course and scope of employment.”

Any accident that occurs after the employee returns from the deviation to their employment may be compensable. This includes matters related to the employee’s personal comfort. For example, an employee who goes into the breakroom to prepare a cup of coffee in the morning would still reasonably be within the “course and scope” of his or her employment. Although this distinction can be cut and dry in a traditional office setting, there is significant nuance when an employee is working from home and the lines may become blurred.

Take, for instance, the Florida matter of Sedgwick CMS v. Valcourt-Williams. In 2016, the claimant (a workers’ compensation adjuster) was working from home on the date of accident. While the claimant reached for a coffee cup, she tripped over her dog during work hours. The issue went before a Judge of Compensation Claims (JCC), who ultimately opined that the claimant was partaking in personal comfort and was still in the course and scope of the employment.

Further, given the approved work from home scenario, the JCC held that the accident was compensable as the claimant’s work environment was imported into her home. Sedgwick subsequently appealed the ruling.

Florida’s First DCA opined that it was immaterial whether the claimant was at home or in the office at the time of the accident. The question that must be addressed was whether the employment would have “necessarily expose[d] an employee to conditions which substantially contribute to the risk of injury.”

Based on these facts, the relevant risk was that the claimant might trip over her dog while reaching for coffee in her kitchen. This risk exists regardless of whether the claimant is working or not and will exist after her employment. As the risk did not arise out of the course and scope of her employment, naturally, the First DCA held that the claimant’s injury was not compensable.

As evidenced in the above scenario, it can be difficult or even impossible for an employer to control the environment of a remote employee. After several months of navigating through this virus, it seems probable that litigation surrounding work from home accidents will be a more common occurrence. In an effort to potentially minimize the number of such claims, Florida employers should ensure that clear risk mitigation strategies are implemented for those remote employees.