Can I get work comp benefits if injured while working from home? In recent days, I’ve been asked this question several times. Across Alabama, many workers are adjusting to remote work requirements from the COVID-19 crisis. Hopefully, these adjustments are temporary. With this new reality, let’s discuss how home-based work impacts workers’ compensation benefits.
Does The Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act Specifically Address Home-Based Workers?
Unfortunately, the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act does not specifically address home-based workers. And, the Alabama Supreme Court has not yet provided a detailed opinion exactly on this issue. So, we do not have a bright-line answer to the specific home-based situations where work comp benefits are available (or are not available). Although the statute does not expressly address home-based workers, we do have some general rules that help. So, let’s look at the general rules as well as some past injuries outside an employer’s factory or office which court’s have previously found compensable.
Does Current Alabama Law Address Work-Related Injuries Away From The Employer’s Business Premises?
Yes, current Alabama law allows injured workers to get comp benefits away from the employer’s factory, store or office. The principles that provide work comp to these employees should also provide benefits to the person injured at home. In our modern economy, many employees work outside an office, store or factory. Think about all the men and women who work as salespeople, truck drivers, delivery people, repairmen and construction crew members. These valued workers are all entitled to benefits when injured performing their jobs.
In prior cases, our court has considered accidents to be work-related where the employee was performing services for his or her employer within the terms of the employment agreement without significant deviation. I would expect the courts to carefully examine the facts in these home-work claims, including the specific location of the accident within the home, and the specific duties being performed at the time. Because courts will closely look at the facts, some insurance company lawyers are already advising their clients to have employers write rules limiting and defining what work-related activities are allowed or permissible. I also expect this area to be hotly litigated. Because of that, it is essential that injured individuals retain lawyers with significant experience in both the trial and appeal of Alabama workers’ compensation claims.
Does Alabama Law Provide A Common Standard For Workers’ Compensation?
Alabama law provides that accidents arising out of and in the course of employment, are compensable work comp claims. I know, the standard is less than completely clear. As I mentioned in the preceding section, our courts have addressed a whole host of work outside the employer’s actual “building” and found it to be compensable. Was the employee performing his or her normal job duties as prescribed without significant deviation?
I always think about a case several years ago involving a logging crew and a snake. Lawyers who really know work comp well, will know this case. You can see where this is going — A logger files a work comp claim after being bitten by a snake. Of course, snakes are a hazard for logging crews in the woods. If the logger was bitten while actually cutting trees, he would be entitled to comp. Heck, if the lawyer was bitten while walking in the woods or trying to get rid of the snake as part of his work, he would be entitled to comp. If the bite had any real relation to his work, he would have a valid work comp claim. But, no, that’s not what happened. The logger was riding with his crew. That part was job-related. That’s when he saw the snake in the road. For fun, he decided to stop, get out and catch the snake. You can see the facts are key. Here, his act was a deviation which had nothing to do with his required job activities. The court denied him benefits.
In Birmingham, one insurance company lawyer is now advising his work comp clients to have written employee agreements and policies for telework. He recommends these written agreements dictate the hours of work, establish areas of the house considered work space and state the rules of what is prohibited activity. That way, employers can limit the activities that are considered work-related. If the current coronavirus limitations continue, I expect more employers to begin establishing policies on these issues. What activities are required by the employer (or necessary to do those required activities) will be key to compensation.
Does A Home-Based Worker Need To Take Steps If Injured While Working?
Absolutely. I would expect many of these claims to be contested. If you are injured while working from home, you should act immediately. Alabama law requires injured workers to provide their employers with timely notice of the accident. Do NOT wait. Tell your supervisor immediately.
The actual workers compensation statute discusses notice in terms of “written” notice. While our courts have allowed oral notice, it’s a bad idea for you to rely upon that. What if you tell your supervisor and he or she later “cannot remember” it? Don’t be surprised. I’ve been practicing work comp law for over 20 years. I’ve lost count how many times a supervisor could “not remember” notice when a claim was later filed. Don’t expect people to remember that you told them of the accident. Remember, your employer may not see you after the accident because of social distancing. So, it will be real easy for the boss to say they cannot remember and did not observe any injury. When your boss “cannot remember” or the facts are unclear, you can lose your claim.
Alabama employers typically use an accident form provided by the Alabama Department of Labor. Ask for it. Contact your supervisor promptly and complete one. You can also use email to ensure your notice is written and received by the boss. The good thing about email — You have proof.
How Will The Coronavirus Pandemic Impact Work-Related Injuries Across Alabama?
The coronavirus pandemic has severely impacted businesses. Traffic has decreased dramatically. This leads to fewer work-related car accidents. Gatherings of people have been significantly limited. This also leads to fewer accidents. While the Governor’s list of “exceptions” concerning necessary employment is so long that many people qualify, many businesses are closed. We will have many people working from home (at least for now).
With that said, many of the most dangerous businesses remain open and operational. Healthcare facilities and nursing staffs are working. They are working hard for all of us! I’ve written in the past about the normal dangers of nursing. Many people do not realize that nurses have a huge rate of serious back injury. Think about it — In normal times, their work requires them to stand and lift (or move) heavy patients. With the current pandemic, nurses face even more risks. Construction crews around Huntsville are very active. Grocery workers are really busy. Workers in local poultry plants (and other food processing plants) continue to work. Many poultry workers are suffering high rates of coronavirus infection as they are required to work in very adverse and difficult conditions. During normal times, poultry plant conditions are difficult and the jobs are hard. I could continue with many more jobs operating during these difficult times.
While I expect to see claims and issues related to telework decided by our courts as a result of the current pandemic, I also see many of the most dangerous professions and jobs continuing to work in their facilities (but under more stressful conditions). If you are injured while working under circumstances changed by COVID-19, talk to a skilled work comp lawyer who understands the nuances of our law. Look for a lawyer who has lots of experience in the trial and appeal of these claims. An experienced lawyer will understand that the small facts can make all the difference.
From its office in Huntsville, the Blackwell Law Firm represents people across Alabama in personal injury claims. We are happy to answer your questions. Consultations are always free and confidential.