More and more companies are allowing employees to work from home. That can be great … but working from home raises a lot of legal issues that many managers simply aren’t aware of.
If you allow telecommuting – even if you allow it for only a few employees, or only part of the time – it’s a good idea to have a written policy that will protect you if questions arise or if something goes wrong.
Here are some of the legal issues and the things a policy should cover:
► Will the employee use company equipment at home?
If the employee will be using company equipment (computers, smartphones, etc.), what happens if the equipment is lost, stolen or damaged? Is the employee responsible for the loss? If so, the employee should be asked to sign an acknowledgement to this effect, perhaps authorizing payroll deductions for the replacement cost.
Is the employee permitted to use a company computer or phone for personal matters? If not, the employee should acknowledge this in writing.
If the employee is using his or her own equipment, and will have access to sensitive data, you’ll need to consider what sorts of safeguards are necessary to protect against the data being compromised. For instance, you might require employees to use a secure connection or a virtual private network, and to change passwords frequently.
If the employee will have sensitive documents at home, you might insist they be kept in a locked file cabinet.
► If the employee gets hurt at home, does workers’ comp apply?
As an employer, you’re legally responsible for providing a safe working environment, even if the worker is at home. You might be amazed to learn that telecommuters have successfully applied for workers’ compensation benefits where they slipped on work documents and injured themselves, where they developed a blood clot while working, where they tripped over the family dog and hurt themselves, and even where they were assaulted by a third party at home.
Although there might not be much you can do to prevent an assault by a neighbor, you might want to protect yourself by requiring employees to designate a specific area at home to serve as an office, requiring lunch and rest breaks at designated times, or even performing a site check of the home office to look for potential hazards.
► How will the employee’s hours be tracked?
The federal overtime law requires businesses to pay employees for all hours worked, and to keep accurate information regarding hours worked even if the employee is at home and there’s no supervisor present to monitor and record hours. If the employee is non-exempt, it would be a good idea to have the employee sign a document saying how many hours will be worked per week and how they will be tracked, and acknowledging that the employee will not work extra hours without permission.
► Are there risks of a discrimination lawsuit?
Discrimination lawsuits can arise if a company is more willing to allow certain groups of employees (such as mothers) to telecommute than others, or allows telecommuting only for certain categories of jobs that are disproportionately filled by one group. A company can also get sued if it discriminates against telecommuters as to wages or benefits.
The federal Americans With Disabilities Act says that businesses have a duty to accommodate disabled workers, and one form of accommodation can be allowing them to work from home. If a company doesn’t want a particular job done from home, the result is sometimes a lengthy legal dispute about whether a disabled worker has a “right” to telecommute.
There’s no foolproof way to prevent this, but if you have a written policy in place that clearly states which categories of jobs are open for telecommuting and the criteria for eligibility, it can help you show that a certain job is not available for working from home.
► Does your liability insurance cover the employee?
What if a courier is delivering a work-related package and slips on the employee’s front step, or is bitten by the employee’s dog? You’ll want to make sure your liability insurance covers incidents related to working at home. You might also want to require the employee to maintain a homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy.
► What if the employee is in another state?
Suppose an employee works remotely from another state, or has a home nearby but across a state border? In many cases, the employment and tax laws of that other state will apply to the employee. This could create extensive paperwork for the business, and you’ll want to be aware of that before you approve a telecommuting arrangement. You might want to prohibit telecommuting across state lines.
► Is a permit required?
Some cities and towns require a permit for a home-based business, and this includes a telecommuter. Some prohibit home-based businesses altogether. You might want to make clear who will be responsible for obtaining a permit and paying any related fees.