Workers’ Compensation and The Personal Comfort Doctrine

workers' compensation personal comfort doctrine

Workers’ compensation covers you for any work-related accident or injury. But what about injuries while you are on a break – getting coffee, perhaps a snack or even on your lunch break? If you weren’t technically working, can you claim a work injury? And what if you are working at home? Read on and contact AllianceMeds today for more information on Workers’ compensation and the Personal Comfort Doctrine.

What does the Personal Comfort Doctrine have to do with workers’ compensation?

Courts throughout the Country recognized the “Personal Comfort Doctrine” in workers’ compensation. When you are at work, there is a benefit – to you and your employer – in your taking mental breaks, using the bathroom or getting a drink. But there are gray areas and untested scenarios relating to the allowance for an employee’s personal comfort. Your employer may challenge a work injury claim that occurred during a work break.

Compensation awarded under the personal comfort doctrine is typically related to injuries incurred during an employee’s break time. You slip on a freshly washed floor on the way to the bathroom or take a fall down the stairs while you are on your way to get some coffee. You are considered to be engaging in actions that provide personal comfort. However, these occur within the scope of actual work activities. Such actions are viewed as a standard part of the employment. Your employer likely benefits too, because taking breaks and engaging in such activities as eating lunch or having a snack will help boost your productivity.

You are considered on duty during your normal work hours. Employees are entitled to meal and rest breaks under the law and are covered by workers’ compensation during that downtime.

Some employers provide a paid lunch break, usually taken on the premises. Other employers have employees clock out and allow them to leave the worksite. This distinction may come into play if the injury happens over your lunch break.

If you are injured on the grounds – a walk for exercise, a fall in the parking lot, a slip on the stairs – you are typically covered. The law is less clear when personal comfort injuries occur off-site.

How does the Personal Comfort Doctrine apply to workers’ compensation when you work remotely?

So, what happens when you work from home? In light of the Covid-19 pandemic most non-essential workers have been working from home. In order to differentiate between injuries that arise out of or occur in the course of employment, many Courts have adopted the “going and coming rule”. This rule denies compensation benefits for injuries sustained by an employee during a regular commute to and from the place of employment, on the theory that ordinarily the relationship of employer and employee is suspended from the time the employee leaves work to go home until they resume work.

The Courts have generally reasoned that an employee going to and from his place of employment is not rendering any service, and begins to render such service only when arriving at the place of his employment. This rigid rule has since been reformulated by some Courts to conclude that for employees with fixed places of business and fixed hours of work, injuries sustained while traveling to and from the place of business are not compensable in the absence of special or exceptional circumstances.

One of those exceptions is the “home as a second job site” exception. If an employee is required by the employer to work at both the employer’s premises and at home, the employee is deemed to be in the course and scope of employment when traveling between these two locations. To differentiate, this exception does not apply when an employee just completes “some tidbit of work” at home or if the work is taken home for the convenience of the employee. However, generally, the home as a second job site exception applies when the employee is unable to complete the usual work duties at the usual place of employment and the employer authorizes the use of the home as a workplace. Courts have concluded that the performance of work at home involves an incidental benefit to the employer.

In light of the recent stay-at-home orders issued throughout the Country and the increase in employees exclusively working from home, it can be easily argued that an employee’s work from home was “required”, thus supporting the argument that the employee’s home is a second job site. In light of this trend, it can be found that any injuries occurring while inside the employee’s home are considered to be in the course and scope of employment.

The fact that employees now usually only walk a few steps from their bedrooms to their in-home office or dedicated workspace to begin their day and can step in and out of that workspace to complete work as many or as few times as they desire, brings about significant difficulty when determining what activities completed throughout the day are related to work. The personal comfort doctrine holds that acts performed during work that are necessary for the personal comfort, convenience, or welfare of the employee, are within the course and scope of employment, even if the act is not part of the employee’s specified work duties. Activities such as visiting the restroom, obtaining a drink of water, or taking a coffee break are generally deemed work-related because they have been found to be necessary and customary such that they become part of normal working conditions. Thus, any injuries that occur while employees are engaged in such activities are generally compensable. Additionally, a salaried employee is generally deemed to be compensated during permissible lunch breaks and injuries sustained during those breaks are therefore considered compensable.

In contrast to the “normal working condition” rule, injuries sustained by employees performing activities strictly for personal purposes are not within the course of employment when the activity is not incidental to the employment and there is no employment-related benefit to the employer.

It seems easy for an argument to be made that any activity is necessary and customary to one’s workday. For example, walking to the kitchen to grab a snack, reaching over to grab the paper to refill one’s printer, standing to scan a document, placing a work-provided headset on a charger, etc. The list could go on with respect to numerous common acts of everyday living.

The decisions of Courts throughout the Country have differed. In some instances, Courts have found a work-related injury when the applicant was heading downstairs to grab a cup of coffee while his computer was connected to the company’s server and he fell down the stairs. The court reasoned that the employee was working shortly before he took his coffee break as he was logging into his computer and thus, the personal comfort doctrine extended to this case. Or when an employee fell down the stairs to her home office, injuring her neck, when she was heading upstairs to the kitchen to get a drink and turned around in a hurry to answer a ringing phone.

However, some Courts have ruled the opposite and found an injury sustained while working from home was not work-related, where the injured worker tripped over her dog during normal working hours while reaching for a coffee cup in her kitchen. The Court concluded that the relevant risk of tripping over her dog did not arise out of the employment and the risk existed whether the worker was at home working or she was not working. Furthermore, they reasoned that since the risk of reaching over her dog existed before she took the job, and would continue to exist after her employment ended as long as she maintained a home with a dog, the employer did not contribute to the risk that the claimant would trip over her dog.

The takeaway is that your work-from-home environment should be as safe as your actual workplace. In order to stay safe while working from home and to avoid issues like tripping over your dog, you should keep your work area free of things like pet and children’s toys, loose cords, basically things that would not be found in your workplace.

Should you become injured at home while working, be sure to document the incident in as much detail as possible. This is especially crucial if there were no witnesses. Be sure to document hospital and doctor visits, prescriptions and any other medical treatments related to the injury. And of course, notify your employer as required and consult with an attorney.

Alliance Meds will work with you, your attorney, and your doctor to ensure that you receive your work-related medications on time even if the bills are denied. If you have any questions about how we can help, contact AllianceMeds today.