In March 2020, many employees began working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, many New York employers were wondering how the more lenient Workers’ Compensation Law would be applied to claims if an employee was injured while working in his or her home, rather than in the traditional workplace. On March 24, 2020, Chartwell Law published an article regarding the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board’s holding in the mandatory Full Board Memorandum of Decision Matter of Matrix Absence Management, WCB No. G195 3353 (May 3, 2019). At that time, the board significantly dialed-back some of its more relaxed rules of compensability for injuries sustained by employees in work-from-home positions, and held that injuries sustained by employees working from home should only be found compensable if they occurred (1) during regular work hours, and (2) while the employee was actually performing his or her employment duties.
However, on October 22, 2020, the Appellate Division, Third Department issued a decision reversing the Full Board decision and directing the board to follow its more lenient approach in these types of claims. See Matter of Capraro v. Matrix Absence Management, 2020 NY Slip Op 06000 (3d Dept 2020). In particular, in considering the proper handling of the claim involving an employee working from home, the Appellate Division reminded the board that its novel stricter standard was unsupported by precedent and inconsistent with the remedial nature of the Workers’ Compensation Law. The Appellate Division found that a regular pattern of work at home renders the employee’s residence a place of employment, no different than the traditional workplace maintained by the employer and noted that there is no requirement that the activity being performed at the time of injury be done at the employer’s direction or directly benefit the employer for the resulting injury to be compensable. As a result, the board is now required to determine if an injury occurring at home is compensable applying its previous long-established standard.
Since this is a recent decision out of the Appellate Division, it remains uncertain if the board will find other ways to limit the compensability of the wide range of possible claims of employees injured while working at home. However, in remitting the matter back to the board to apply its typical standard, the Appellate Division was rather direct in specifying the issues that the Board should consider in determining the compensability of injuries sustained at home during regular work hours: whether the employee was engaged in a “purely personal” activity that was not “reasonable and sufficiently work related under the circumstances.” Further language in the Appellate Division’s decision strongly suggests that even activities that are truly personal, such as injuries occurring during a short coffee break, remain compensable even if the employee is working from home, due to its prior precedent on this issue for typical office employees.
Further, although not directly at issue in the appeal, the Appellate Division reminded the board that it has previously held that a “momentary deviation” from the work routine for a customary and accepted purpose does not constitute an interruption in employment sufficient to bar a claim for benefits. Most commonly, we see this type of “momentary deviation” in claims where an office worker is injured as the result of an accident that occurs while they go to take a short break, such as for coffee. The board generally does not consider a much longer break, such as the lunch hour, as a “momentary deviation” from employment, but the relevant accident being considered in Matrix Absence Management occurred during the claimant’s lunch break. The claimant was injured while moving boxes of furniture allegedly acquired for his work-from-home setup. The Appellate Division specifically remanded the matter back to the Board to consider if moving the furniture, even during the claimant’s lunch hour, was “sufficiently work-related and therefore, not purely personal.”
The holding of the Appellate Division essentially reverses the stricter standard for work-from-home employees articulated by the full board back in May 2019. Therefore, with this holding, there is a stronger likelihood that employees sustaining injuries while working from home, even while not actively engaged in their true work activities, may have a compensable workers’ compensation claim. The Appellate Division was not clear, however, in specifying how the board should determine if employees’ actions were “purely personal,” other than giving examples that were not. In response, we continue to recommend implementing well-documented procedures for employees working from home, including clearly defined work hours, with possible clocking in and out for breaks; clear delineation of specific employment duties while working from home; and documentation of what items (e.g., computers, furniture, etc.) are required by and will be covered by the employer. It may also be advantageous to request that employees report exactly where they are expecting to work from each day, to avoid claims arising out of unknown locations. Unlike a physical office, the employer has no control of the overall safety of the employee work area when they are working remotely. While the Appellate Division strongly criticized the full board’s creation of a stricter standard of compensability for work-from-home employees, it did not address the simple fact that the work-from-home environment does not truly follow the structure of a physical office setting, and the employer loses significant control over safety issues. If an employer lacks specific guidelines for working from home, there is a stronger likelihood that the board will be forced to accept a conclusion that the claimant’s injury arose out of and in the course of employment.
Moreover, accidents that occur while working from home still rely heavily on the Workers’ Compensation Law § 21(1) presumption that unwitnessed accidents that occur in the course of employment arise out of that employment, and it is on the employer/carrier to rebut this presumption. The Appellate Division’s decision does not impact this overall issue. It remains significantly more difficult to rebut the presumption with an employee working from home, simply because there are unlikely to be any employer eyewitnesses to the accident (unless, for example, the accident occurred while on a video conference), and certainly no security footage within the employer’s control. Therefore, should an injury occur while an employee is working from home, we continue to strongly recommend that the employee promptly be asked to provide a detailed written history (or recorded statement) of the alleged incident, including the time, place, and circumstances surrounding the incident, as well as any photographic evidence (such as, for example, a photo of the chair that allegedly broke and caused the fall), so that the alleged events are well-documented to allow for proper review for compensability by the Workers’ Compensation Board. This more relaxed standard articulated by the Appellate Division will likely result in increased litigation in these types of claims, in order to obtain all relevant factual information regarding the incident before the Workers’ Compensation Law Judge ultimately determines whether the claimant’s activity at the time of any claimed injury occurred during regular work hours, was purely personal in nature, and was reasonable and sufficiently work related under the circumstances.