Course of Employment in Washington: What Factors are Considered When an Employee is Injured While Working from Home?

As the State of Washington slowly implements its four-phase recovery plan, many employees continue to work remotely from home in various capacities due to the social distancing requirements brought on by COVID-19. As employees continue to work from home, many employers are faced with new claims involving injuries sustained away from the employer’s premises. These unique claims can make it difficult for employers and third-party administrators to assess what constitutes a compensable injury or occupational disease.

In Washington, workers acting in the “course of employment” are covered by the Industrial Insurance Act. Generally speaking, acting in the course of employment means the employee is acting at his or her employer’s direction or furthering the employer’s business. This is broad definition and there are key distinctions from many jurisdictions. For example, unlike Oregon, there is no “arising out of” component that must be met in order for the claim to be compensable. This means that a remote worker can be acting in the course of employment when she is injured, even if the worker is not performing a task directly related to her job at the time of the injury. For this reason, each claim must be considered on an individual basis to determine whether or not the worker was in the course of employment at the time of the incident.

If an employee is injured while working remotely from home, there are several considerations that factor into a compensability determination. There are a variety of activities that are characterized as “abandonment” of employment. For example, RCW 51.08.013(2)(b) provides that acting in the course of employment does not include time on social, recreational, or athletic activities. However, the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals has recognized that workers engaged in activities of “personal comfort” are not excluded from coverage. Examples of personal comfort activities include taking a break, getting coffee or a drink of water, and using the restroom. The personal comfort doctrine becomes less clear, however, when an employee is working from home. In 2018, the Board denied coverage when a remote worker logged off her computer, which signaled to her employer that she was unavailable and left the physical location of her workstation while she walking her dog. The Board held she temporarily abandoned her employment and that the employer retained no authority over her while she was on her walk. In re Leeann Starovasnik, Dckt. No. 16 19483 (June 28, 2018).

Another potential consideration is the Dual-Purpose doctrine which provides that when a trip has concurrent business and personal purposes, the worker is in the course of her employment when she is injured during the trip. For remote workers who need to make work-related trips while performing their job or further their employer’s business interests (i.e., dropping off mail), there is potential exposure for coverage when an injury occurs while on that trip. If the worker takes a trip with concurrent business and personal purposes and injures herself, you will want to investigate whether the worker took an unreasonable personal “deviation” from the work-related task that could move her out of the course of employment. As you can see, the “course of employment” analysis is often fact-specific and subject to one of many exceptions. Accordingly, employers should conduct an immediate and detailed investigation regarding circumstances of the injury when faced with a claim relating to remote work that occurred at home or outside the office.

When allowing employees to work remotely from home, SBH attorneys recommend a written policy and contract providing clarity and certainty regarding the terms of the remote work. A written remote work policy will likely be appreciated by employees and does not have to be long or convoluted, but should clearly identify the jobsite, hours, and expectations of remote work.

If you have any questions, concerns, would like to discuss a claim relating to an injury that occurred while working from home, or if you would like assistance in developing framework and/or policies for employees working remotely from home, please do not hesitate to contact me at (503) 595-6105 or mgodfrey@sbhlegal.com.