Working from Home or A Hybrid Working Environment – North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Implications

As the COVID-19 public health crisis developed, many North Carolinians found themselves working from home either, as a result of voluntary safety initiatives of employers or executive orders of Governor Cooper. Today, as COVID-19 metrics improve in North Carolina, a significant number of North Carolinians still find themselves working from home or in a hybrid situation where they work from home certain days and are on-premises / at work on other days.

Research and trends suggest that the shift to working from home may be permanent for a substantial percentage of the working population. This concept is no longer linked to COVID 19 metrics. Businesses across the economy are following the lead of tech companies in this regard as they discover that for many types of businesses, teleworking or a hybrid, provides substantial benefits to both employees and employers.

For those finding themselves working from home, or employers who have employees working from home, some are likely to wonder how North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Law applies in these situations. This may seem obvious but is worth stating, the Workers’ Compensation Act does cover employees working from home. What it does not do is provide 24-hour coverage for anything that might arise at home.

Application of the law in principle differs little than if the person is working on-premises. The burden of proof still remains on the employee to prove that they sustained a compensable injury. Under the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act, “injury” is defined as “injury by accident arising out of and in the course of the employment.” See NCGS§97-2(6) Meeting this burden of proof may be a bigger challenge for those working from home.

Let’s tackle the accident piece first. A person must prove that the injury resulted from something unusual, some interruption of the work routine. Typically, on work premises, there are likely to be witnesses for things like slips, trips, falls, or observers to substantiate that someone bent over to pick something up. If on-premises and there aren’t witnesses, often an injured worker gets a co-worker or supervisor’s attention right away, to help substantiate that something happened. It is less likely that this type of corroboration/substantiation will be available for injuries at home.

Next, an injured worker must prove that their injury arose out of employment, meaning there has to be some causal connection to the employment. When a person is working from home, how do they prove that causal connection? That is a tricky question. Some suggest that a person should have a dedicated workspace. In fact, that isn’t required and many people conduct work calls with earpieces walking all over their homes or even in their cars. There is no bright-line rule about this. There must simply be some evidence put forth as to what the employee was doing in furtherance of the employer’s business when the injury occurred.

“In the course of employment” may be the most strained element in the working from home scenario. This is the most strained element because our case law does not tell us whether teleworkers would be treated as “traveling salespeople” who have wider latitude as to when they are considered “on-the-job.” When working on-premises, workers are generally considered to be “in the course of employment” as soon as they are on the employer’s premises. Obviously, we can’t use that rubric for these circumstances so what does apply? In truth, we don’t know precisely, there would be arguments to be made on both sides. If an at-home employee has set hours, an employer could argue that an injury that happens outside those hours is outside the scope of employment. An employee may have evidence to prove that though he or she has set hours, he or she had a special assignment or project that required working outside those hours. When possible though, setting hours for employees does help establish some parameters for this piece of the puzzle.

As can be seen, though the same law applies to workers whether they are on-premises are working from home, the application of the law is more complicated when they are working from home. If you work from home and sustain a work injury, you should consult a North Carolina Board Certified Workers’ Compensation Specialist to help you navigate these complexities and ensure you get the benefits you deserve.