Your employee is working from home, and while performing a task related to her employment, she trips over her dog and injures herself. Should she receive workers’ compensation?
The answer to that question likely will startle many small businesses operators.
Because this was exactly the situation in the 2011 Sandberg v. JC Penney Co. lawsuit. An Oregon appeals court decided in favor of a custom decorator who tripped over her dog on the way to her garage to get fabric samples needed for her work and fractured her wrist.
To be sure, business owners in the U.S. are responsible for providing a safe business environment, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration stipulates. According to the agency, remote employees (though not freelancers or contractors) have the same worker-compensation rights as in-office employees.
Unprepared companies may be in for a rude awakening when it comes to potential liabilities linked to remote workers.
In the rush to switch from in-office to remote work during the pandemic, some employers did little other than hand their employees a laptop. In fact, employers must consider such concerns as worker safety, cybersecurity risks and their own possible liability, experts advise.
“The level of risk is related to the amount of planning the employer did prior to the implementation of the work-from-home policy,” Dave Roy, second vice president of Travelers insurance company, said in a webinar last June. “Many companies had detailed plans and training in place that included an ergonomics overview and the types of computers and accessories that employees were going to use. Others had little plans except to provide a computer to the employees.”
Check your insurance policy and check in with your employees
Many small businesses have insurance policies that bundle property insurance, business interruption insurance and general liability. Business experts suggest that you make sure that your policies cover working from home, including coverage for equipment and supplies, injuries and property damage. In addition, workers’ compensation coverage is legally required in the U.S.
The Hartford insurance company advises on its website that if a customer is injured while visiting an employee’s home office, your company may be held liable. The same is true if, for instance, a client drops a camera in your employee’s home office. You may be liable for a replacement, so insurance that covers public liability in the remote-work situation is advised for both situations.
Employers can also help ensure worker safety by starting a conversation about the remote-work environment and ensurig that staff have an appropriate home office.
For example, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management requires a signed telework agreement with a 34-point safety checklist.
Employees’ homeowner coverage should include damage to equipment when working from home, according to the Hartford. In addition, employers may add coverage to their business insurance policy for equipment such as cellphones, tablets and laptops not on the business’s property — but make sure that such coverage specifically covers employees’ home offices, the Hartford suggests on its site.
Protect your business from cyber risks
Cyberattacks on home networks are another potential risk, experts say.
Because home computer systems have more vulnerability than centralized office networks, cybersecurity risks have skyrocketed in the work-from-home era.
In an analysis of 41,000 organizations, BitSight, a cybersecurity ratings company, found
that home networks were 3.5 times more likely to be infected with malware than traditional corporate networks. About 45 percent of employees’ home networks were infected compared with only 13 percent of corporate networks, it found.
To counter those risks, businesses also may want to consider cyber insurance to help in cases of cyberattacks and data breaches of home networks, including coverage for unintentional violations of privacy laws, advises Remoters, a platform for remote workers.
At the very least, businesses should take in-house measures to limit the risk of cyberattacks, experts say.
The Hartford recommends having an IT professional set up a secure connection from employees’ homes to the company network. Only employees should use the organization’s equipment, the insurer advises.
Other measures include educating employees on proper cybersecurity procedures such as avoiding clicking on links or opening attachments on e-mails from unknown senders; reporting possible suspicious incidents immediately and implementing a procedure for reporting and responding to incidents, Travelers recommends.
Your IT department should make sure that networks, servers and computers are patched, institute enhanced system monitoring and use virtual private networks for remote access with multi-factor authentication, the insurer says.
Put it in writing
Planning and creating an explicit policy related to remote work will put small businesses ahead of the game, according to the Hartford.
It recommends creating a telecommuting policy with clear guidelines, which can both prevent misunderstandings and protect your business in case of a mishap in a home office.
Your guidelines could include specifics such as working hours, employee rights — including regarding workers’ compensation — as well as personal-health suggestions. These can be as simple as taking regular breaks and offering advice on creating an ergonomic office. Written guidelines could also encompass advice on maintaining cybersecurity, the Hartford says.
In general, employers should extend workplace safety management and IT security to remote work, advises Dave Roy of Travelers.
“This is not solely an IT issue or a space planning/real-estate issue,” he said. “This needs to be a coordinated effort from all areas of the employer that would deal with conventional office issues.”
And perhaps a special memo should be sent to employees to keep Fido from underfoot.