As we approach the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers still require their employees to work from home. However, most employers likely do not realize the implications this responsible decision can have on potential workers’ compensation claims.
On October 22, 2020, the Third Department overturned the Workers’ Compensation Board’s decision in Matter of Matrix Absence Management, 2019 NY Wrk Comp G1953353, in which the Board Panel held that the claimant did not suffer a compensable accident where his injuries did not arise out of and in the course of his employment. Capraro v. Matrix Absence Management, 187 A.D.3d 1395 (3d Dept., Oct. 22, 2020). In Capraro, the employer hired the claimant to work from home. Thereafter, the claimant requested authorization and reimbursement for office furniture to perform his job, but the employer denied the claimant’s requests. Nonetheless, the claimant ordered the furniture and had it delivered during business hours on a workday, where, on his lunch break, the claimant moved the furniture into his home. Unsurprisingly, the claimant injured himself while moving the furniture into his home office. In holding that the claimant did not suffer a compensable accident, the Board Panel instead ruled that injuries suffered while working from home are only compensable where the claimant was actually performing work (i.e., not away from his/her desk for any reason, including using the restroom).
Subsequently, the Third Department reversed and remitted the matter to determine whether the claimant injured himself in the scope and course of his employment. In overturning the Board’s decision, the Third Department seemingly was not all that concerned that claimant was working from home, on his lunch break, and moving furniture into his home (i.e., office furniture that was not paid for, nor approved, by claimant’s employer). Instead, the Court relied on longstanding precedent that injuries sustained during brief breaks at work are generally still compensable, unless they were purely personal (i.e., not sufficiently work related). In fact, the Court indicated that it believed that the Board Panel ignored these basic principles in favor of a more stringent standard for employees working from home. That is, the Board Panel only would find claimant’s injuries compensable if they had occurred both during working hours and while performing work activities. Significantly, the Court stated that a consistent pattern of working from home makes the employee’s home a place of employment, equivalent to a traditional workspace.
Here at LOMAD, we have developed an argument that the Third Department’s decision in Capraro should not apply to employees who work from home solely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of the Third Department’s decision in Capraro hinges on the claimant’s consistent pattern of working from home converting the claimant’s home into the functional equivalent of the employer’s primary place of business. However, the COVID-19 pandemic unexpectedly required most employers to transition to having their employees work remotely, either all or in-part. Employers made this change both to: (a) comply with government directives and recommendations; and (b) ensure their employee’s safety. What is more, many employers either did, or hope to, return to the office as soon as it is safe to do so. Therefore, it would be unfair and inaccurate to characterize employees working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic as engaged in a “consistent pattern of working from home.” Thus, the Board and the Third Department should not apply the broad standard in Capraro, in which employers face liability for virtually any injuries suffered by claimants working from home, so long as they occur during business hours.
Instead, we contend that the Board should apply its decision in Matter of Matrix Absence Management to cases where claimants injure themselves while working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic placed employers in a difficult situation; requiring them to drastically alter their preferred business models to ensure both their employee’s and the community’s safety. Applying the Third Department’s standard in Capraro will unnecessarily increase the number of workers’ compensation claims that these very same employers will face, despite their best intentions. Conversely, the Board Panel’s underlying decision in Mater of Matrix Absence Management guarantees that employees can still pursue workers’ compensation claims for injuries suffered at work, but not for injuries suffered while, for example, emptying the dishwasher.
Additionally, we believe that our argument supports public policy. The Third Department’s decision in Capraro will lead to employers choosing to bring their employees back into the office, despite understandable trepidation in light of the ongoing concerns of community spread. Moreover, while some employers may choose to continue working remotely, they may institute various tracking technologies, such as keystroke trackers and webcams, to ensure that their employees stay at their workstation all day. This invasion of privacy benefits nobody and places an undue burden on employers and employees alike.
Lastly, the long-established case law, pertaining to whether an accident occurred in the scope and course of employment, is implicitly founded upon an understanding that employers maintain significant control over their offices. That is, employers provide ADA compliant facilities that take the needs of various employees into consideration. However, employers maintain no such control over their employees’ homes. What if the claimant’s stairs do not have railings? What happens when the claimant slips while doing laundry? Who is liable when the claimant burns himself making a grilled cheese sandwich? These questions highlight the absurdity of the Third Department’s decision in Capraro and, we believe, support our argument that the Board should apply its more stringent decision in Matter of Matrix Absence Management to claims for workers’ compensation benefits related to injuries suffered at home while working from home to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
If you find one (or twenty) of these claims coming your way . . . don’t get angry, GET M.A.D.