By: Mark Barnes
Since the onset of the pandemic in the Spring of 2020, the Director of the Ohio Department of Health, through its orders, has encouraged employers to permit “as many employees as possible to work from home by implementing policies in areas such as teleworking and video conferencing.” As a consequence, many Ohioans have been working from home in accordance with the orders from ODH to curtail the spread of coronavirus/COVID-19. Because much of the workforce now works from home, many employers want to know whether they are liable for injuries which occur at home during work hours. The answer to this question is unclear.
Research has revealed no Ohio case addressing injuries occurring at home during telework. As such, to determine whether injuries incurred while performing telework are compensable requires application of the principles underlying the compensability of workers’ compensation claims generally.
The definition of an injury under R.C. 4123.01(C) controls the compensability of claims. Participation in Ohio’s workers’ compensation system requires a claimant to prove both elements of an injury: that it occurred “in the course of employment” and “arose out of employment.”
- The “in the course of prong” refers to the time, place and circumstances of the injury;
- the “arising out of” prong refers to the causal connection between the employment and the injury.
In general, the workers’ compensation system contemplates only such hazards that employees encounter in the discharge of their duties. Furthermore, because the compensability of workers’ compensation claims can be very fact specific, Ohio courts apply a totality of the circumstances test, which considers
- the proximity of the scene of the accident to the place of employment,
- the degree of control the employer had over the scene of the accident, and
- the benefit the employer received from the injured employee’s presence at the scene of the accident.
Regardless of the type of injury, compensability always turns on whether the employment led to the risk and caused the injury.
Hypothetically, if someone is working from home and trips over the dog and falls, burns their hand making coffee, or cuts their finger making lunch, such injuries would not be compensable because the hazards which led to the injuries are not attributable to risks of employment. However, if a worker develops carpal tunnel syndrome from performing repetitive data entry on a computer at home or a neck strain because of the positioning of their computer, these injuries arise from risks and strains which are not normally encountered in the worker’s non-employment life. More than likely, such claims would meet the test for compensability.
The bottom line is remote work does not change the calculus for compensability. Moreover, workers’ compensation practitioners should recognize there are no “slam dunks,” especially when a claim is before the Industrial Commission. Hearing officers enjoy quite a bit of discretion in considering claims, and their world views certainly affect their interpretation of the facts of a claim, as well as the legal framework for compensability. If an employer receives an injury claim occurring during telework, the employee should consult legal counsel to ascertain the merits of defending against such a claim.