Coronavirus and telecommuting: New exposures for employers

BY Louise Esola and Angela Childers


With much of America’s workforce working from home in an attempt to reduce the spread of COVID-19, employers may experience an uptick in workers' compensation claims, experts say.


“We’re probably going to see more claims,” said Jeffrey Smagacz, Nashville-based ergonomics practice leader for Marsh LLC, addressing one area of concern as many office workers take to home to work.


Another focus will be the unique claims that arise when a telecommuter trips on a cord or other object in their home office, among other accidents that create comp claims, said Dennis Tierney, Marsh’s Norwalk, Connecticut-based national director of workers compensation claims.


“This is something that opens up another exposure for employers who are not used to having their workers work from home,” he said, adding that most companies with telecommuters already know the drill about ensuring safe workspaces. Much of the risk gets leveraged with proper communication and training, he said.


Marsh, for example, provides clients with telecommuter checklists to ensure safety of equipment and workspaces — covering everything from hazards such as clutter to where to position one’s computer screen.


The broker has also compiled data that shows that regular telecommuting has increased by 140% since 2005 and that roughly half of U.S. employers hold jobs that are compatible with at least partial telework. That number is set to increase regardless of capabilities, as the threat of coronavirus continues to escalate, according to experts.


In some cases, people who have always gone into an office are now working at a kitchen table that’s too high and sitting on a hard chair, or sitting on a soft couch working in an awkward posture all day, Mr. Smagacz said.


Also problematic is that homes are shared spaces, as Matt Zender, Salinas, California-based senior vice president of workers compensation strategy at AmTrust Financial Services Inc., noted in a roundup of the new exposures related to telecommuting employees.


“A worker may be sharing that space with their 12-year-old’s science project, or their partner’s other hobbies or work, especially if they’re only working from home a couple of days a week,” he said in an email. “This commingling can lead to some awkward workspaces that can lead to injuries over time.”


“(Workers) are going to go from a totally ergonomically sound workstation to a totally unsafe workstation. … It’s going to be hard to defend,” said Les Johnson, partner in the Chicago office of SmithAmundsen LLC.


More ergonomic injuries are likely from worker behaviors such as using their laptop on their couch, hunching over to see a screen and not having arm support to use the keyboard, said Deborah Roy, Falmouth, Maine-based president of SafeTech Consultants Inc. and president-elect of the American Society of Safety Professionals.


“If they’re continuing to do this over a period of time, obviously they’re going to start to have some discomfort,” she said. “People need to be focused on proper positioning, whether they’re working from home or in an office.”


Employers may see an uptick in claims of back discomfort, particularly lower back, as well as neck discomfort and arm tendonitis, Mr. Smagacz said.


In California, where mental stress is compensable, employers may see an uptick in mental comp claims because workers will no longer have that same work separation or may feel isolated because they don’t have the same human interaction at the workplace, he added.


“We’ll probably also see some increase in slips, trips and falls because people aren’t going to have a well-laid-out workplace and (will be) plugging in power cords wherever they can,” Mr. Smagacz said.


Another big issue that companies may face with employees working from home is the increase in unwitnessed accidents, Mr. Johnson said. “A larger volume of unwitnessed (claims) … that’s a big defense issue in comp in general,” he said.


Employers may see delays in reporting, which can increase defense litigation costs and negatively affect an employer’s exposure because “it’s really hard to defend” a late-reported accident or an unwitnessed accident, Mr. Johnson said. Companies will also have to spend more time questioning claims to determine whether the worker was truly engaged in employment at the time of the incident.


Some seemingly compensable injuries could be directed toward a homeowners policy vs. workers comp, Mr. Johnson said.


“Is there going to be a situation where an injured worker’s lawyer says, ‘You’re better off suing under your homeowners policy?’” he said. “Awards are higher, they’re not capped, and there’s pain and suffering in those types of lawsuits.”


One big question for employers is how to handle requests by employees for equipment such as an office chair to be delivered to their home, he said, noting that three of his clients had posed this question to him Monday.


Employers do need to be cognizant that if they do accommodate such a request, they need to think about who is going to set up the chair in the worker’s home, train the employee on how to adjust the chair to fit within their kitchen table or whatever work space they are using, and what to do with the chair when the worker returns to the office.


“This is posing some unique questions,” he said. “It’s really pushing us to think about the long term and how would we support a bigger percentage of the working population being remote.”


Much of the due diligence will be up to employers, as regulation is lax on telecommuting, said Eric Conn, Washington, D.C.-based chair of the workplace safety practice group at Conn Maciel Carey LLP. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has “repeatedly” said that it will not investigate the safety of home offices, he said, adding that the federal government is not likely to change its stance immediately but may do so eventually.


“I think the American workforce will change after this crisis,” Mr. Conn said. “There will be a massive shift in teleworking, and OSHA might have to revisit its policies if there is a much larger percentage of the workforce in the (home) environment.”


More insurance and risk management news on the coronavirus crisis here.


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