July 28, 2020

There was a time when working from home was considered a perk. Today, in the midst of a global pandemic, it has quickly become the norm.

Working from home has afforded companies a way to stay productive while minimizing the risk of employees transmitting COVID-19. However, without proper planning, companies may find themselves exposed to myriad other risks.

I’d like to touch on three common areas of risk for companies with employees operating remotely.

Insurance coverage

Even when an employee is working off-site, the employer is still liable if an injury occurs on work time. As strange as it may sound, if an employee is walking across her kitchen to get on a Zoom call, trips over her child’s toy and is injured, she will likely be protected under a Worker’s Compensation claim.

A 2006 case, Verizon Pennsylvania Inc. v. Workers Compensation Appeal Board Alston affirmed that employees working from home, even if injured while doing non-work things such as getting a drink of water, are covered.

Use of company equipment

Most employers have clearly defined rules for employee use of company equipment. But what about an employee working remotely? If you have 100 employees working remotely, you’ve got 100 potential security breaches/entry points for hackers and phishers.

No matter how focused an employee is at home, there will be distractions. An employee opens a suspicious email, doesn’t log out of his computer when the doorbell rings, or doesn’t have his Wi-Fi network secured with a password. In each instance, he is potentially exposing the employer to a serious breach.

With Google recently announcing its employees will work remotely through June of 2021 (and others following suit) this issue isn’t going away. Employers must review and update policies, retrain employees and take all necessary steps to protect their information. This article in the National Law Review offers some additional insight into this issue.

Managing hours

Pre COVID-19, employers who resisted offering work from home options cited a concern employees wouldn’t be as productive. Seven months into the pandemic, many companies are finding the exact opposite to be true.

A recent study found remote workers average 1.4 days per month more work than coworkers in the traditional office setting. At 5 o’clock, an office worker may rush for the door. But, if that same employee is on his back deck with a lemonade and a laptop, he is more likely to push through and finish a project, even if it means working extra hours.

Likewise, an employee who normally leaves the house at 7 am for an hour commute, may instead jump on the computer at 7, adding an extra hour of productivity to the work day.

Where this gets sticky for employers, is in managing non-exempt employees. An employee may clock in and out on a job site. If an employer doesn’t implement a system to track time for remote employees, the company could face issues with those employees making claims for unpaid overtime down the road.

The Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) protects employees in this type of instance, and employers found to have violated this act can face stiff consequences. 

The bottom line for employers is this: we are operating in largely uncharted waters under the cloud of a global pandemic. There are clear and specific rules employers must follow, but there is also a lot of ambiguity and gray areas to be sorted out.

You are focused on keeping your business operational, your employees employed and your customers satisfied. Don’t get unintentionally tripped up trying to navigate work life in the age of COVID-19 alone.

B. Kevin Burke Jr. is an attorney with Gross Shuman, P.C. He focuses his practice on the litigation of contract disputes, labor and employment issues, intellectual property protection, and trade secret cases. He can be reached at 716.854.4300 ext. 292 or [email protected].