How to protect your work-from-home employees from injuries that can drive up your workers' comp costs

With the case for remote work growing for many companies, North Bay legal and medical stakeholders say the issue for employers remains how to keep employees safe while working at home, without an increase in workers' compensation insurance claims.

And there's a concern that most of these workers may not have the proper office equipment at home.

“With people changing how they work and where they work, workplace injuries will happen in all sorts of new and different ways. It's up to the workers' comp system to keep up, recognize these changing times and protect workers,” said Will Ferchland, a Santa Rosa attorney who specializes in workers' comp cases. “Workers get hurt in a whole variety of ways, whether it's their fault or not.”

Ferchland pointed out an employee on the clock at home may even fall upon tripping on a children's toy and injuring a knee.

“That would be covered,” he said.

“This transition has been coming on for quite some time, said Marc Francis, another Sonoma County-based attorney who represents applicants.

“We'll see interesting patterns (associated with injuries) with more people working from home,” Francis said.

To the attorney, these workers need to get the benefit of doubt.

Although Francis calls the probability of a worker committing fraud as “catnip to claim examiners,” he estimated the nefarious practice has been proven in only about one of a thousand cases in his 32 years handling workers comp law.

“People don't usually make up these stories,” Francis said.

According to the state Department of Industrial Relations, which houses the workers’ comp division, half the injuries caused at work involve continuous, often times subtle functions such as typing and sitting.

So how does a company win if its workers are trying to avoid catching a deadly disease, work at home, but don't have a clue about the damage they're inflicting on their health?

A workforce displaced

I think it's possible we'll have more cases. When this all started, I told employers, "one workers comp claim would pay for all the chairs for their employees." Kate Lister, Global Workplace Analytics president

The explosive growth in working from home means more first-timers who may not know how to set up an “ergonomically correct” workstation.

“I think it's possible we'll have more cases. When this all started, I told employers, ‘one workers’ comp claim would pay for all the chairs for their employees,” Global Workplace Analytics President Kate Lister told the Business Journal from her San Diego County office.

Lister's company reported that 88% of global workers are performing their job at home, but prior to the pandemic, only 31% had done so before. The variance of those who know what to do and those who don't may sound alarm bells to companies not wanting to face the nightmare of dealing with or disputing workers comp claims.

Workers comp is a benefit managed by the state that pays for treatment and provides a portion of lost income when an employee is injured on the job and becomes unable to perform work functions. The injury may either be acute or gradual.

An injured worker files a claim that is handled by an insurance company that determines the eligibility of such a claim. It can be disputed by a company, which pays into the system, but also may be appealed by the applicant.

Often times, a claim may lead to a settlement the worker can deny.

Through recent reforms, an employee will receive up to $10,000 for treatment, no matter whether a company disputes the claim.

As well as medical care, claims provide benefits for temporary or permanent disability with a weekly stipend, job displacement and death. Those who file don't have to be legal residents of the United States.

Understanding home setup

It's important to ask employees who work from home: “Do you have an adequate workstation?” Babak Jamasbi, who specializes in workers compensation-related cases

To avoid the scenario, workplace analysts, doctors and lawyers agree employers need to provide instructions on how their employees set up workstations at home - whether the arrangements are temporary or permanent.

“It's important to ask employees who work from home: ‘Do you have an adequate workstation?'” said Dr. Babak Jamasbi, who specializes in workers compensation-related cases.

Jamasbi, whose practice operates in six Northern California locations including Rohnert Park, has seen blatant examples of workplace neglect by employers.

“I've seen it all,” he said, mentioning an insurance agent who sustained a cumulative back injury by sitting in a broken, tilted chair for too long.

Jamasbi emphasized that an employee who's working with bad posture may have problems over time.

Workers’ compensation becomes a tricky challenge as companies doubt the validity of such a claim and negotiations between the employee and employer sour.

If a company shows genuine concern in protecting the health of that employee, the care goes a long way in the eyes of the worker. In some cases, a worker considering filing a claim may hedge on factors that are just as mental as physical.

“Sometimes it just comes down to whether you care. That's very important,” Jamasbi said, while addressing employers. “Sometimes having anger toward an employer may contribute to an employee filing a claim if they feel they can hurt it.”

Once a worker files, employees are fully aware of the long, laborious process and don't expect their employees to go to the trouble.

“Navigating the system is tough. That's why the majority of the people who have an injury have an attorney,” he said.

Upon filing though, employees give up their rights to sue the employers in most cases.

Under a few circumstances including those impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, employees may even push themselves into filing a claim if they feel they're injured but don't believe their jobs are safe from being eliminated, an attorney with Mullen & Filippi Law noted.

“A large number of people want to work from home because of the positive mental aspects of that, and employees are influenced by that,” said Dana Miller, who represents companies in workers comp claims.

Miller suggested employers get their workers to send photos or establish videoconferences in which they can see the remote employees workstations.

In turn, a staffer should oblige.

“With such high unemployment rates, they want to keep their jobs. They won't want to mess with that and upset the apple cart,” he said.

The flip side of that equation amounts to unhappy employees pressing forward with the legal claim if they have unpleasant feelings about their workplaces and whether their management teams care about them.

“One challenge for employers is if, in fact, claims are made regarding these injuries, how do you disprove that?” Miller said.

And along those lines, does an employer really want to alienate a good employee who could very well return healthy if they're willing and taken care of?

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