Working from home is not a new concept. However, technological advancements and the global economy have certainly increased the ability and demand for employees to stay connected and work remotely. According to a report by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics published in 2010, 24% of American workers reported doing some or all of their work from home. In the digital age of email, video conferencing and remote access, employees can perform work tasks nearly anywhere including planes, trains, taxis and, of course, Starbucks! The ability of employees to work remotely offers a mutual benefit to employers and employees. It is becoming more common for employers in a vast variety of industries to provide employees with laptops, cell phones and other equipment that allows and encourages employees to work from home in order to save money on leasing office space. The ability of employees to work remotely also offers benefits to the employee, including the time and costs of commuting. Another mutual benefit arises during inclement weather because employees remain productive even when they cannot get to work.
What happens when an employee is injured while working from home? Is the injury covered under workers’ compensation? The answer in New Jersey is, of course, “it depends.”
New Jersey has a premises rule and the leading case is Jumpp v. City of Ventnor, 177 N.J. 470 (2003). In Jumpp, the petitioner was a pumping station operator who normally inspected sites throughout the City. It was customary for the petitioner to take a lunch or coffee break as needed. On the date of the injury, the petitioner stopped along his route to get his personal mail from a local post office, which was on the way to the next work site he intended to inspect. Although the petitioner’s supervisor had knowledge he was going to visit the post office during the work day and permitted this practice to occur, the petitioner’s accident was determined not to be compensable because the accident occurred during a minor deviation from the petitioner’s normal work route while getting his personal mail. Although the petitioner in Jumpp was not working from home when the accident occurred, in its decision, the Supreme Court set out a standard for the analysis to determine compensability of off-premise injuries. The Supreme Court held the legal analysis to be applied to an accident to an on-premises employee is the same as that for an off-premises employee. The Court held, “Because off-premises employees may not report to a single ‘premises,’ the statute provides that they are to be compensated only for accidents occurring in the direct performance of their duties… Employees who are where they are supposed to be, doing what they are supposed to be doing, are within the course of employment whether on- or off-premises, except when they are commuting.” Id. At 483.
The primary issue in analyzing whether an injury is covered under workers’ compensation in New Jersey is determining whether the accident arose out of and in the course of the employment. Under N.J.S.A. 34:15-7, an accident is compensable when it arises out of and in the course of employment. Therefore, the determination of whether an accident that occurs while an employee is working from home is fact specific and requires a thorough analysis of where, when and how the accident occurred.
In New Jersey, there have been a number of instances in which the Court found accidents compensable when the employee was working from home and the accident occurred while the employee was in the course of employment. In Kossack v. Town of Bloomfield, 63 N.J. Super. 332 (Law Div. 1960), a police officer was injured at home while cleaning his service gun. The injury was found to be compensable because the police officer had a duty to keep the service revolver clean and nothing in the police regulations limited that duty to time or place. Using the decision in Kossack, the Court in Chaverri v. Cace Trucking Incorporated, No. A-3619-07T2 (App. Div. March 26, 2010) (Unreported), found the injury that occurred while the employee was cleaning his tractor trailer at home was compensable. The petitioner in Chaverri owned the tractor trailer and as part of the contract agreed to maintain and insure the tractor trailer. The Judge of Compensation found the petitioner was an employee, but denied the injury arose from the petitioner’s employment with the respondent. The Appellate Court reversed the Judge of Compensation’s decision and found the injury arose from the petitioner’s employment with the respondent since maintaining the vehicle was an essential function of the job.
Most recently, in Renner v. AT&T, No. A-2393-10T3 (App.Div. June 27, 2011) (Unreported), the Court found an accident compensable that involved the death of a manager who sat at her computer for long hours while working from home to meet various deadlines imposed by AT&T. The decedent was allowed to work from home three days per week. AT&T provided the decedent with a laptop and speakerphone to work at home. On September 24, 2007, the decedent began working on a project at home overnight for approximately 10 hours. An hour after the decedent stopped working, she called 9-1-1 reporting she could not breathe. The decedent was pronounced dead when she arrived at the hospital. She died from a pulmonary embolism. On appeal, AT&T argued that there was no evidence that the decedent’s work effort or strain was in excess of the wear and tear of her non-work activities or that the decedent’s work activities caused the pulmonary embolism. On January 24, 2012, the Supreme Court of New Jersey granted AT&T’s petition for certification. A decision has not yet been published.
In Wilkins v. Prudential Insurance and Financial Services, 338 N.J. Super. 587 (App. Div. 2001), the petitioner was an insurance salesman who essentially worked from home. He went to the Prudential office two days per week for meetings and met clients at their homes. The petitioner was injured in the parking lot (not owned by Prudential) while leaving the Prudential office. The Appellate Division held the petitioner’s conventional place of employment was his home and the accident was compensable because the petitioner was engaged in a special mission while at the Prudential office. Although, the accident in Wilkins did not occur while he was working at his home office, the decision is significant since the Appellate Division recognized petitioner’s home as the conventional place of employment.
Although the above cases have by no means established a clear-cut rule, it appears that the trend in New Jersey is that accidents that occur while an employee is working from home are subject to the same legal standards that apply when an employee is injured in the office. For instance, if an employee is working from home and trips over a work file on the floor, the accident will likely be found compensable. By way of comparison, if an employee working from home is injured while unloading clothes from the washer, that injury is not compensable since the laundry work is purely personal and unrelated to the employment. However, if a teacher injures their back while carrying a briefcase up the stairs at their home, is the accident covered under workers’ compensation? What if the teacher testifies that there were textbooks in the briefcase and the teacher planned to prepare for the next day’s lecture? We await the Court’s decision.
As illustrated by the above-hypothetical, practical issues arise when an employee is injured while working from home. There will not be any co-employee witnesses nor video surveillance of the accident. The majority of at home accidents will be unwitnessed. Therefore, the compensability of the accident will come down to the facts and credibility of the injured employee. Since the number of employees working from home continues to increase, here are some suggestions for employers:
- Limit the parameters of the ability of employees to work from home by placing restrictions on the specific locations that they are permitted to work in their home. For example, an employer can state that employees are only permitted to work from home in their 10×10 home office.
- Limit the number of hours an employee is permitted to work at home. For example, employees are only allowed to work from home between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.
 See American Time Use Survey—2010 Results, USDL-11-0919
(U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 22, 2011).