Thursday, February 7, 2008

Makes Me Glad I'm Not A Lawyer

There was a recent decision by the Tennessee Supreme Court on a workers comp case that I thought was interesting (here's an opinion piece about the decision in the Tennessean). A woman who telecommuted full-time was assaulted in her home during her workday, and the court has ruled that she is entitled to workers comp for her injuries.

This kind of ruling could have a chilling (or, at best, complicating) effect on telecommuting arrangements. On the one hand, I think that workers compensation would likely be appropriate if my employer-issued computer malfunctions and electrocutes me as I work. But I don't think that it's my employer's fault if I walk out to get a sandwich at lunchtime and am hit by a bus. But -- this gets hazier -- what would happen if I choke as I'm eating a sandwich in my employer's private cafeteria? I don't know. See -- I'm not a lawyer, and I'm glad.

So, some employers will read about this decision and say, "We can't afford the risk of having uncontrolled workers comp claims coming in -- who knows what could go wrong in these people's houses!" And they have another excuse to not allow telecommuting. That's a bad thing.

But another way to handle it would be to construct telecommuting agreements that would simply and fairly spell out liability and how it's divided between the employer and the employee.

Just like you explicitly say who pays for the Internets, furniture, phone, lights-electricity-n-heat, and so on, you also put in the agreement that the employee recognizes that s/he must provide adequate security for the dedicated workspace in his or her home. This might could include additional riders on homeowners insurance policies, guard dogs, locks, alarm systems, or whatever else you, the employer, would require for any facility. You could also spell out that stuff that happens outside the dedicated workspace in the home is not the employer's responsibility.

Oh, by the way, you should always require that your telecommuters have a dedicated workspace in their homes. The kitchen table office just won't cut it for a full-time remote worker. Telecommuters should provide you with a photograph or tour and a detailed description of this space, and if you have ergonomic and/or risk specialists on staff, you should have them review that photo and description so they can advise whether or not it looks safe and comfortable.

I'm just saying.

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