Second Quarter 2018
By: Caitlin R. Kilburg
Question: If an employee (‘telecommuter”) who works primarily from home is injured while performing a task related to his or her job duties, is the injury compensable even though the event occurred in the employee’s home?
Short Answer: Yes, in Iowa, an employee who works primarily from home can likely receive workers’ compensation benefits if they are injured at home while performing job duties. On a broader level, typically, under Iowa’s workers’ compensation scheme, injuries incurred while performing job duties are almost always compensable, regardless of location.
Discussion: While courts in Iowa have yet to opine on the specific issue of workers working from home offices, we can take guidance from several connected theories.
It is the claimant’s burden to prove the injury or death arose out of and in the course of employment. See Iowa Code § 85.61(7). An injury is within the course of employment if it is received while employed in furthering the employer’s business. Farmers Elevator Co. v. Kingsley, 286 N.W.2d at 177 (quoting Bushing v. Iowa Ry. & Light Co., 226 N.W. 719, 723 (Iowa 1929)). The courts have held that there must be a causal connection between the injury and the course of employment as it relates to the time, place and circumstances of the accident and the relevant inquiry is “whose business was the employee pursuing at the time of the injury?” Chia v. Quaker Oats Co., 552 N.W.2d at 151–52 (quoting Pribyl, 67 N.W.2d at 442).
Under this relevant inquiry, injuries sustained at home while a telecommuting employee is engaged in job duties should be treated as compensable injuries. The issue becomes less clear if the employee works from home and is not necessarily performing work duties at the time of the accident, or traditionally works from a set location outside the home and occasionally also performs work at home for personal convenience.
In the instance of an employee who works from home and is injured while performing a task not necessarily work related: for example making a sandwich, switching a load of laundry or letting the dog outside, consideration likely will be given to whether the employee was engaged in a substantial enough deviation to remove him or herself from the course and scope of employment. The analysis would be similar to discussions about personal comfort activities while in a more traditional work setting.
As for employees who occasionally work from home, the analysis likely would focus around the quantity and regularity of work performed at home, the continuing presence of work equipment at home, and special circumstances of the particular employment that made it necessary and not merely personally convenient to work at home. In Seaman v. Burgess, 872 N.W.2d 198 (Iowa Ct. App. 2015), the claimant argued that her home was a second work location. She based her theory on the fact that she would sometimes work in the evening to complete her reports via calling into a telephonic dictation service. The court found: “The record is clear, however, that Mrs. Seaman’s home was not a dedicated office space or secondary office space. Mrs. Seaman never saw clients at her home. Further, Burgess never specifically directed her to work from home. The employer did not expect her to work from home and did not provide compensation for her work at home. The employer did not pay mileage or other expenses associated with Mrs. Seaman’s commute. Burgess did not provide her with any equipment for her home.” The court concluded, “[c]atching up on occasional work at home or completing tasks at home that could be completed at the employer’s premises is an insufficient basis to find that claimant had dual employment premises.”
Practice Tip: Employers should draft well worded and specific work from home agreements. These agreements should clearly define job duties for employees that work at home, so as to create a degree of separation between the employee’s job duties and their personal home life. This should include specific rules about clocking in and out when leaving the designated work area. In cases where an employee has a fixed work site outside the home, employers should set firm rules about the permissiveness of working from home and tailor policies accordingly. For example, not providing technology to allow remote working and not allowing company property to leave the job site reduces the possibility that an employee’s home could be found to be a second job site.