Friday, February 3, 2012

Home Alone, Telecommuting, and Man’s Best Friend

            For years, employers have fretted over a host of issues surrounding the increased desire on the part of some employees to telecommute and now pressure from government and environmental groups to ramp up with an extensive telecommute program.  Over and above obvious issues like time and attendance, management counsel have raised concerns about worker compensation claims.  For example, last year a New Jersey court awarded worker compensation survivor benefits to an AT&T manager’s family who had died of a blood clot attributed to sitting for long periods of time at her home work computer.  Renner v. AT&T, No. A-2393-10T3, 2011 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1668 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. June 27, 2011).

            Shortly prior to this decision, an Oregon appellate court awarded worker compensation benefits to a home-based worker who tripped over her small dog as she walked from her home to her nearby garage to retrieve some work-related supplies.  Initially, the State workers’ compensation board denied the claim on the ground that the injury did not arise out of her employment because (1) she was not exposed to the risk by virtue of her employment, but encountered the same risk anytime she stepped outside the door of her home and (2) because the risk arose from her home environment, which was outside of the employer’s control.  The appellate court found that the employer’s lack of control over the conditions of the workers premises was not material.  While the employer might not have had control over the worker’s dog, it had control over whether the worker worked away from the employer’s premises.  The moral of the story being that once the home premises become the work premises, the hazards of the home premises encountered in connection with the performance of work become also hazards of the employment. In re Sandberg, 243 Ore. App. 342, 260 P.3d 495 (Or. Ct. App. June 1, 2011).

            The trend toward telecommuting seems likely to continue for both environmental and efficiency reasons.  See Max Chafkin, “Telecommuting by the Numbers”, Inc. Online (April 1, 2010) (cite online at http://www.inc.com/magazine/20100401/telecommuting-by-the-numbers.html, accessed Feb. 3, 2012) (describing the substantial efficiency and environmental benefits of telecommuting); Agence-France Presse, “As Fuel Surges, Telecommuting Grows in U.S.” (June 1, 2008) (cite online at http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5iGlg2C-bVbf2t_XQjE4BjIdG2mxw, accessed Feb. 3, 2012) (noting that some 48% of employers offer telework at least once per week and that 40% of IBM’s global workforce have an option to work from a remote location).  So, if the Oregon case represents the future of worker compensation law for the increasing numbers of employees working either occasionally or full-time from home, how should the Company’s loss-prevention department address these issues proactively?  Should man’s best friend be banned from the home workplace?  Should loss-prevention personnel conduct an initial and periodic audit of home work premises for hazards?  What effect will the increased percentage of an employer’s work-force telecommuting have on insurance premiums?  See The Hartford Loss Control Department, “Loss Control TIPS”, TIPS S 520.375 (2002) (online at http://www.thehartford.com/corporate/losscontrol/SBA/TIPS/520-375.pdf, accessed Feb. 3, 2012) (addressing potential concerns of telecommuting, including planning for potential workers compensation issues).

            The times, they are a-changin’.


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