Addressing Workers’ Compensation Issues for the Remote Workforce
October 9, 2023
The ever-evolving work landscape and rise of remote work have brought about new challenges and opportunities for Pennsylvania employers. A critical aspect of maintaining employee well-being and ensuring legal compliance has become managing workers’ compensation issues that arise out of an increasingly remote workforce. Here is a guide for Pennsylvania employers on effectively managing workers’ compensation concerns for their remote employees.
Understanding the Legal Landscape
The first step is crucial—employers must understand the commonwealth’s legal framework governing workers’ compensation laws, including how they apply to remote employees and clarify the employer’s responsibilities in terms of reporting, documentation and communication.
Pennsylvania grants eligibility for workers’ compensation benefits to all employees, including those working from home. As such, remote employees are entitled to the same workers’ compensation protections as those who work on-site, though injured employees are only eligible for benefits for injuries sustained in the “scope of employment.”
For remote employees, what is considered within the scope of employment can be somewhat challenging to ascertain. For example, if a remote worker is working on his porch and trips, falling onto the sidewalk, is that considered an injury sustained within the scope of employment? Establishing clear remote work policies, appropriate job descriptions and safety expectations can help to prepare an employer for these unique challenges.
Establish Remote Work Policies
Unambiguous and well-communicated remote work policies are essential to ensure that both employees and employers are on the same page regarding expectations, reporting procedures and safety. Employers should consider adopting the following policies and procedures for remote workers:
Detailed Job Descriptions and Safety Guidelines
An often-overlooked tool for employers dealing with work injuries is a detailed job description. These job descriptions can be incredibly useful in determining whether an injury occurred within the scope of an employee’s employment. For remote workers, job descriptions should be updated to include details regarding expectations for remote working conditions. For example, an employer may choose to include a provision that remote employees are expected to work in a safe, well-lit and clutter-free area. Well-written job descriptions can be strong evidence used to determine whether a remote employee was acting within the course and scope of his employment when injured.
Reporting Procedures for Injuries
Establishing a clear reporting procedure for remote work injuries is crucial to ensure that employers can properly investigate and process remote workers’ compensation claims in a timely manner and in compliance with the law. Strong reporting policies also allow employers to engage in investigations into workplace injuries promptly, which can be challenging given that most remote injuries occur offsite. Employers should adopt a policy that requires all employees (not just remote employees) to report their injury immediately (or as soon as possible if the injury presents a life-threatening emergency). Specifically regarding remote work injuries, employers should require injured remote workers to document the details of the injury, including the exact date and time it occurred, any witnesses and any equipment that was involved.
Navigating Remote Investigations
Investigating remote work injuries requires the same careful approach used to evaluate on-site incidents. Employers must offer injured remote workers immediate medical attention (preferably with a panel medical provider), complete necessary paperwork and consider an independent medical evaluation. Employers must also be prepared to confront several unique issues when investigating remote work injuries.
As remote injuries occur off an employer’s premises, it usually is not possible to review security camera footage or rely on other employees’ accounts of the incident to determine how the accident occurred. As stated above, this makes obtaining the injured worker’s detailed, written account of the incident vitally important. The statement must be as comprehensive as possible and should include the precise time and date of the accident, the exact location where it occurred, a description of what the worker was doing when injured and identification of any equipment or objects involved. The written statement is crucial to determining the cause and nature of the reported injury and could be valuable evidence if a dispute arises.
Discovering and interviewing witnesses is essential to a thorough investigation. This can be especially challenging when assessing a remote employee’s injury claim. Witnesses are likely to be nonemployees, so employers might not be able to compel them to participate in the investigation. Nevertheless, an injured remote worker should be required to identify any witnesses to the incident. When necessary, permission from the injured worker to speak with such witnesses should be requested in writing. An employee’s refusal to identify witnesses or to make them available for interview without good reason should be met with scrutiny.
Preservation of physical evidence is another common challenge when investigating remote injuries. This is especially so because the employer is unlikely to have control over the premises where the injury occurred. For this reason, employers must instruct the injured worker, in writing, to preserve all evidence. Employees should be advised that destruction or alteration of evidence could result in disciplinary action or denial of their claim. Employers may also consider requesting permission to conduct an in-person inspection of the site of the injury to photograph and document the conditions of the remote work site. Unreasonably withheld permission should again be met with scrutiny.
Supporting a Remote Worker’s Rehabilitation and Return to Work
As with all work injuries, employers should focus on two primary goals when a remote worker is injured: supporting the employee’s recovery and returning the employee to work safely as soon as possible. There are several considerations that factor into achieving these goals.
Given that remote workers usually do not have routine, face-to-face interaction with management, regular communication is critical to supporting their recovery and exploring return-to-work options. Maintaining open dialogue about the employee’s well-being, changes in work status and any medical restrictions is necessary. Telephone check-ins and written communication are top priorities—this interaction ensures that the injured worker feels connected to the team and avoids isolation. Workers who feel disconnected and isolated are much more likely to view the workers’ compensation process as adversarial instead of collaborative.
Sometimes, a remote worker will be medically unable to work because of the injury. In these circumstances, employers must ensure that they meet any obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and other applicable laws. For example, an injured worker might require a temporary leave of absence. It is critical for employers to determine the duration of any such leave and proper documentation must be maintained. Communication regarding expectations for returning to work, either with or without accommodation, should be documented.
In circumstances where an injured remote worker can work with restrictions, employers should consider accommodations that will enable the employee to continue working while he recovers. This accomplishes several important objectives: the financial impact of the work injury is minimized for employee and employer alike; the worker continues earning income; and the employer avoids incurring expenses associated with paying full wage loss benefits under its workers’ compensation policy. Making light duty work available to an injured remote employee also fosters engagement and avoids adversarial tensions that can arise when an employer does not offer modified duty. Finally, offering light duty work reduces exposure to claims under the ADA and other laws.
To formulate an appropriate return-to-work plan, employers should work with healthcare providers to create a structured strategy to get the employee back to work. Features of the plan will be case-specific. Return-to-work strategies might include adjusting the employee’s workload, offering flexible work arrangements and providing specialized equipment that might include ergonomic chairs, keyboard trays or software designed for accessibility. Employers must remain open-minded about accommodating employees in their remote work environments, and accommodations should be adjusted as the employee recovers.
As remote work continues to reshape the modern workforce, Pennsylvania employers must proactively address the unique challenges associated with managing workers’ compensation issues. By understanding legal obligations, implementing robust policies, prioritizing safety, embracing technology and providing comprehensive support, employers can ensure the well-being of their remote workforce while navigating the intricacies of the workers’ compensation landscape.
Of course, the legal landscape of workers’ compensation law is much more complex than the summary provided here. As such, the first step for any employer facing uncertainty over workers’ compensation issues is to seek legal counsel.
Gregory Archibald is an associate attorney with McNees Wallace & Nurick’s Lancaster office who focuses his practice on labor, employment and workers’ compensation law. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-581-2310.
Micah Saul is a member attorney in the firm’s Lancaster office. He has over a decade of experience counseling employers on employee management, workplace policies and workers’ compensation, among other matters. He can be reached at email@example.com or 717-581-3736.