Working remotely has its pros and cons as we have all learned. There are some really great benefits of work from home, but the downside, can be problematic. One of the limitations is not having the best ergonomic set up at home leading to lost productivity, impaired performance, and injury.
What are the ramifications of not having a comfortable and supportive home space to work? There are many implications that can follow.
Early Signs and Symptoms
One of the most common concerns is the onset of musculoskeletal discomfort often revealed as early signs and symptoms such as localized achiness, muscular tension, headaches, muscle spasms, or even numbness. Employees typically report discomfort to the neck, back, shoulders, forearms, and wrist/hands. All resulting from improper placement of equipment, poor posture and prolonged sitting in an improper chair. If these signs and symptoms aren't abated in time, a work injury can result.
What's an employee to do if the only equipment provided by the employer, a laptop, is the culprit along with the kitchen table and chair as the office? Is it the employer's responsibility to do more than just provide the laptop for home use?
Known Medical Condition or Disability
When your employee has a known medical condition or disability in the workplace, then an employer's obligation is to provide a reasonable accommodation if it is a qualified individual with a disability. For example, an employee with a known back condition may present with medical documentation asking for a sit to stand workstation as their medical accommodation. This type of request in the office is fairly common, so most employers now comply and provide a sit to stand solution to accommodate the employee.
But what if the employee works remotely, is the company required to pay for ergonomic equipment as a reasonable accommodation?
Ergonomic Equipment As An Accommodation
The question posed is a common one these days and the answer depends on the situation presented. Abigail O'Connell, Senior Counsel at Sun Life and Marjory Robetson, AVP and Senior Counsel at Sun Life provide the following answers.
If an employee requests the ergonomic equipment as an accommodation for a disability under the ADA or applicable state or local disability discrimination law, the employer will, in all likelihood, be required to pay for appropriate equipment-absent an undue hardship. Employees are not necessarily entitled to the equipment of their choice, or even the accommodation of their choice, but employers may be required to provide an effective accommodation at their expense, again absent undue hardship. In addition, some states, such as California, have very strict laws regarding reimbursement of employees for work-related expenses.
Employers can require employees to provide medical documentation to support their accommodation requests, as long as the employer treats all employees consistently in this regard. If an employer is more generous or lenient with certain employees in terms of the purchase of equipment, this could lead to a discrimination claim beyond the ADA, such as race, gender, or age discrimination.
An Employer's Best Interest
It may be in an employer's interest, in terms of preventing workers' compensation injuries, to agree to provide ergonomic evaluations for employee's remote working circumstances and to purchase ergonomically-appropriate equipment to help prevent injury in the home. If an employer is able to offer ergonomic equipment in a workplace setting and an employee is choosing to work from home for personal reasons, (and not for medical reasons or reasons that benefit the employer), an employer may not be required to pay for ergonomic equipment for home use.
COVID Changes Everything
The situation COVID created in 2020 was a mandated work from home scenario compelling employees to work from home with laptops in hand in whatever room their homes would permit. In 2021, while the state laws may not be as strict, COVID and the variants have created a scenario that is precipitating ongoing work from home, or a hybrid model where employees work at home and in the office.
It continues then in an employer's best interest to support employees with the following to ensure employees are working safely at home (with accommodations) in their new workplace.
1. Online Work from Home (WFH) Ergonomics education and training either as a webinar or as a self-paced, on-demand course, so that employees can set up their home work space effectively with ergonomics strategies using quick fixes and home accommodations.
2. Remote video ergonomic analysis with a qualified remote ergonomics specialist to help the employee work safely and comfortably, to avoid discomfort.
3. Provide a reasonable stipend to allow WFH employees to purchase preselected, ergonomist approved ergonomic equipment so the money is applied correctly. Most importantly, a good chair, a laptop riser, an external keyboard and mouse.
4. Employees with a workers' compensation claim, a medical condition, or a disability, who received a reasonable accommodation previously in the workplace, should be treated the same at home. Employers should initiate the interactive process with these individuals to ensure suitable accommodations are in place within the home.
In the COVID era, the lines between work and home are now blurred. But the accommodation laws remain well defined for those with medical conditions, and disabilities. Remote ergonomic evaluations, online ergonomics training, and ergonomic equipment purchases are reasonable under most circumstances for employers and help all employees. Taking these actions will have significant benefits resulting in a positive effect on employee morale, productivity and well-being.