What If I'm Injured While Working From Home During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

The coronavirus outbreak has raised many novel questions. Fortunately for telecommuters, workers' compensation coverage isn't one of them.

Stay-at-home orders and remote working have become our new reality in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. An unexpected issue this raises for some remote workers is, what happens if you’re injured while working from home? Does your employer’s workers’ compensation insurance still cover your injury, or is your private health insurance policy your sole option? As with most legal questions, the answer depends on the particular facts of your case.

Typical Workers' Compensation Coverage Criteria

Workers’ compensation is a no-fault system, which means that if you're injured in the "course and scope of employment," you’re typically covered under your employer’s workers' comp insurance, regardless of whether your own negligence (or someone else's) played a role in the accident. While remote work life has brought this question to the forefront, workers’ compensation coverage for off-site injuries is not really a novel concept.

In general, employees are covered for work-related injuries that occur outside the office or other workplace. The primary consideration in these cases becomes whether the injury is actually work-related. Proving that your occupation caused an injury becomes more complicated when working remotely, especially when the injury could have theoretically occurred at home on any given day when you weren’t working.

Some questions that will determine whether an injury is work-related include:

  • Was the employer benefiting from the employee’s actions when the injury occurred?
  • Did the employer require the employee to engage in the injury-causing activity?
  • Did the employer approve the off-site activity in advance?

For example, if you’re injured in the company’s break room while having your lunch on-site, workers’ compensation will usually cover those injuries because it benefits your employer when you take your lunch break at the office (it saves time and keeps you accessible to your team if a need arises while you’re on break). Even if you’re injured on your employer’s premises after you clock out, you will typically still be covered under the company insurance policy.

This analysis also translates to telecommuting. If you stub your toe on the way to the bathroom at midnight, you’re probably out of luck. But if you can reasonably explain how an injury is work-related, chances are you’ll get the benefit of the doubt.

Learn more about injuries and illnesses covered by workers' compensation.

There's (Usually) a Judicious Allocation of Benefits

Courts usually err on the side of covering employees’ injuries in workers’ compensation disputes. Taking an expansive approach to coverage serves everyone’s best interests when a worker is injured on the job. Broadly interpreting coverage typically helps:

  • employees ensure that their medical expenses and income will be paid while they recover
  • employers avoid having an injured employee sue them for negligence, and
  • courts sidestep large caseloads of work-related injury cases that would overburden the judicial system.

Whether your employer was benefiting from an injury-causing activity while you were working from home might usually involve a more fact-intensive inquiry that it would if you were injured on company premises. But given the way the coronavirus pandemic is changing the nature of work, not to mention the need to comply with stay at home orders issued by local and state governments, employees are likely to face less scrutiny in these situations than they otherwise might. If your company wants to keep the gears turning, its only option (unless it’s an “essential” business under government-mandated restrictions) is to enable you to work from home as efficiently as possible. This includes continuing to provide basic protections to you and other workers.

For example, carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive stress injuries are covered by workers’ compensation insurance. If you’re performing the same repetitive movements at home that you would perform at the office and sustain an injury in the process, that’s a pretty clear case for coverage.

Getting Started With a Workers’ Compensation Claim

State laws govern workers’ compensation benefits, so the rules vary depending on where you live. If you sustain an injury while working from home, your first course of action should be to file the workers’ compensation insurance forms provided by your employer as soon as possible.

You should also preserve any evidence that might demonstrate how you sustained the injury, so you’re prepared to answer any questions regarding whether you were in the course and scope of employment when the injury occurred. And if your workers' compensation claim is denied, talk to an experienced attorney about your best course of action.

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