Two court cases about working from home. Two startling decisions

Since working from home has become the norm for so many, what happens when there's a legal issue such as a physical injury?
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer on

It's not just one room that's the workplace.

Image: Getty

Technology has eroded the separation between work and, well, life.

Working from home has, for many, created a situation where, thanks to computers, wifi and Zoom, work has entirely taken over life.

Many employers, of course, haven't minded this at all. Think of all the money they've saved on office space. Think of the long hours people are now working as they toil in the confines of their bedrooms, living rooms, or tiny home offices.

But have you ever thought about what happens when, say, an accident occurs? At home. While you're working at home.

I've been moved by two recent legal cases that have mined the realities of your home being your office.

In Germany, a man got out of bed and walked down a spiral staircase toward his home office. He slipped and broke his back.

His employer's insurance company declined to honor his claim for compensation.

Yet, as the Guardian reported, a court declared that the man was technically commuting, so he could claim workplace accident insurance. This, it concluded, was his first trip that day from the "home" of his bed to his office. Ergo, a commute.

The court added: "If the insured activity is carried out in the household of the insured person or at another location, insurance cover is provided to the same extent as when the activity is carried out at the company premises."

You might think this would make one or two employers around the world take notice and not, perhaps, consider themselves so very lucky to have their employees in their own homes, with their own insurance policies.

But then, another court case.

An Air Canada employee worked her call center job from home, as so many call center employees have been forced to over the last two years.

While at home, and during office hours, she, too, slipped down the stairs and sustained injuries.

The airline didn't believe she qualified for workers' compensation.

The Vancouver Sun related the judge's words like this: "Air Canada argues that this fall on the stairs did not occur during work, since Ms. Gentile-Patti was no longer in her professional sphere, but rather in her personal sphere, because the fall occurs as she heads out to eat."

That hurts. Yes, you're working from home. But if you're going downstairs to get lunch, you're off the clock and not at work?

The judge wasn't moved by the airline's attempt to suggest that only the home office counts as a place of work. He added that the only reason Gentile-Patti was going down the stairs at the time she did was to take the lunchtime designated by her employer.

In the judge's words: "Ms. Gentile-Patti's fall, which occurred moments after disconnecting from her workstation to go to dinner, is an unforeseen and sudden event that occurs during work. She therefore suffered an occupational injury."

I'm sure lawyers all over the world will pore over the nuances and debate the legalities and limitations with verve.

I prefer to focus on a more human notion. At least some courts are beginning to recognize that employers can't take all the advantages of having their employees work from home, without accepting responsibility for some of the disadvantages.

I can only wonder how many more cases will be brought, in which the blurring of workplace and home will be tested.

Surely one or two might just cover employers' new remote surveillance software.

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