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On-the-Job Injuries When You Work From Home

How New York workers’ compensation laws apply

In March 2020, when the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered non-essential businesses to close their doors. What followed was a mass exodus from commutes and cubicles to slippers and home offices. “We went from 50% to 100% working from home within three days, essentially,” says Cathy Stanton, head of the workers’ compensation department at Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano law firm. 

Injuries and Remote Work 

Injuries can happen while working in an at-home environment as easily as at a traditional workspace: tripping over a rug, falling down stairs, or hurting your back bending to pick up a piece of paper. The good news for remote workers is that these injuries may still be under workers’ compensation coverage.

Protection for home-based workers has long been established by the courts and the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board. “The home office exception basically takes the workers’ compensation law … and brings it into the home,” Stanton explains. “It’s the exact same benefits, the exact same medical treatments, the exact same monetary benefits that you would be entitled to if it was not at the home site.”

There are also the same caveats.

Criteria for Work-Related Injuries at Home

 “The criteria that’s used to determine if a workers’ compensation claim is compensable under any circumstances is whether or not it’s in and of the course of employment,” says Gerri Rella, founder of Rella & Associates.  

Take, for example, a worker who logs off the computer for an unpaid lunch break, then falls and tears a meniscus. “The employer’s going to say that’s a deviation, that you weren’t working then … and therefore, it’s not compensable,” Rella says. But if the employee is paid for lunch breaks, and it is considered work hours, the injury would be covered.

Some areas are gray. If you’re injured during a brief break, such as running downstairs to put food in the oven, it might be covered. “You’d have to show specifics, but there have been court cases that have held that that would have been just a slight deviation that would not be considered leaving the actual work process,” says Stanton.

What’s also looked at: the definition of “working from home.” “[The courts] look at the quantity and the regularity of the work performed at a home,” Stanton says. “If I only work one day a month from home and I happen to get injured at that particular time, that might not be compensable. They also look at the continuing presence of work equipment at home, and whether it’s for the employer’s convenience that they work from home.”  

Proving a Work-from-Home Injuries

Remote employees also face the challenge of proving their injuries qualify. New York doesn’t require a witness for workers’ compensation claims. “So how do you prove it?” Rella asks. “It comes down to credibility, and the judge who will hear the claim will be trier of fact.” 

“These cases are not the easiest, because the presumption, I think, off the bat is that it’s probably not compensable if it happened from home,” adds Stanton. “You’re going to have to prove it, and that’s what an attorney will do: prove the fact that there are all these connections, these nexuses, between your injury and the work that was performed—even though that injury may not have been caused by the work you were doing.” 

Rella says insurance companies will probably dispute most workplace injuries at an employee’s home, even though, if the same injury happened on an employer’s premises, they wouldn’t.  

Given the newness of the widespread remote workplace, the law and its application may have to adjust. “I think it’s early on in the process,” Rella says, “and employees that are working remotely might not even be thinking if they got hurt they could file a workers’ compensation claim. I think that this is something that’s going to evolve over time.” She’s discussed public education efforts with groups like the Injured Workers Bar Association. 

“That’s going to be the next challenge,” she says, “to just let the general public know that they may have the right to file a workers’ compensation claim if they get hurt at home.”

An experienced workers’ compensation attorney can help you through the process. To learn more about this area of law, see our overview on workers’ compensation law.

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