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Work-at-home cases rattle employers


Employers were appalled when a New Jersey appellate court ruled recently that an AT&T manager's extended time sitting while on the job contributed to her death, entitling her spouse to workers compensation dependency benefits.

Cathleen Renner's dependents essentially claimed that the AT&T employee of 25 years worked herself to death by sitting at a desk, physically inactive for long periods. The June ruling in James P. Renner vs. AT&T revealed that a medical expert testified the she died of a blood clot and pulmonary embolism caused by sitting for long hours, although there were contributing factors such as obesity and her use of birth control pills.

It was the second recent workers comp appeals court decision I know of to rattle employers and involve employees working from home. While the New Jersey ruling in Renner vs. AT&T did not address issues arising from the claimant working from home, it offers an example of how employers are more likely to see workers comp cases involving mishaps occurring outside the traditional worksite. So employers should get ready for such claims.

In May, I heard speakers at the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc.'s annual conference say that while employers will face more claims filed by workers whose primary place of doing their job is outside the traditional workplace, a lack of case law involving such workers comp claimants remains.

Then in June, Oregon's Court of Appeals ruled in Mary S. Sandberg vs. J.C. Penney Co. Inc. that the injury a salesperson suffered when she tripped over her dog while working at home arose from her employment.

You can imagine how that decision rattled employers and it represents early case law, at least in Oregon.

The ruling also should remind employers to consider appropriate risk management strategies as more employees work on the road and from home.

Fortunately, disability and workers comp professionals already are considering such employees.

The Disability Management Employer Coalition just released a white paper titled “Virtual Workforce: The Changing Face of Absence and Productivity in the Technological Age.” It provides employer case studies ranging from worker home office ergonomic assessments to absence management issues.

While employers will see more cases involving remote workers, not all will involve at-home workers.

That is the case in the New Jersey court decision involving Ms. Renner, the AT&T employee. Court records show she worked from home three days a week and went into the office twice a week.

Employers and workers comp observers who side with them expressed outrage over the court's ruling, arguing that just because Ms. Renner was working when she died doesn't mean her work caused the health problems leading to her death.

Several argued that her employer didn't strap her to a desk chair and force her to stay seated the entire time she was working, and that movement, such as getting up for a drink of water, is known to reduce the potential for blood clots.

Let it be a reminder that communications encouraging office employees to move about during the day also need to find their way to remote workers.