A recent decision of an administrative Judge in Quebec’s Tribunal Administratif du Travail has held that a slip and fall sustained while at home and working from home constitutes a workplace accident for which an employee should receive appropriate compensation.
The injured worker, Alexandria Gentile-Patti, worked from home as an Air Canada customer service agent, and fell down the stairs moving between her home office and her kitchen while breaking for lunch. She filed a report with the workplace health and safety office.
Air Canada commenced an administrative action before the tribunal, alleging that the injury was not a workplace injury, that there was no connection with work or workplace, and that in the alternative an employee working from home should be presumed to be in private life and not in a workplace as they are not under the employer’s direct supervision. Mme. Gentile-Patti took the position that it was a sudden and unexpected injury, sustained in her workplace, and that taking a lunch break was a normal workplace activity that benefits both employee and employer.
The Tribunal focused on the question of whether the injury took place in the course of work, <à l’occasion du travail>. and noted the following non-exhaustive factors to consider:
- The place the injury occurred;
- the time the injury occurred;
- Whether the employee was being remunerated for the activity being performed;
- The degree of authority of employer over employee;
- The purpose of the activity, whether incidental, optional, or an accessory to work function; and
- The relevance or usefulness of the activity relative to the work
The Tribunal found that Mme. Gentile-Patti was working from home and was expected to be working from 6 am to approximately 1 pm, with time set aside for breaks including lunch. During working hours she had to stay connected via her computer to the call center, except when disconnecting for scheduled breaks. While she was not in her employer’s workplace or being compensated for going to lunch, she was taking lunch at that time and place because she was subject to her employer’s timetable and scheduling of work.
The Court reviewed precedents indicating that employees at lunch at a food court or restaurant were not “in the course of work” while dining, however, Mme. Gentile-Patti was not dining but rather walking downstairs to lunch when the incident took place. The Court considered numerous authorities supporting the proposition that an employee engaged in travel to work or for work purposes was “in the course of work” when injured during that travel.
In the result, the Court held that Mme. Gentile-Patti was “in the course of work” owing to the close connection between her home office and her stairs, and her necessary submission to her employer’s timetable, including for her lunch break. The Tribunal did not make any finding of whether an injury that took place during the course of her lunch would have qualified as a workplace injury, as she was injured on her way to lunch and not while eating lunch.
Comment: The COVID pandemic has dramatically accelerated the move towards telecommuting and other home office arrangements. Employees working from home are entitled to compensation for injuries sustained during the course of work, even though not in the employer’s workplace or under their direct supervision.
The degree of control over the work will likely be a determinative question: here, the employer required a virtual connection to the call center during hours of work, exercising significant control over the employee’s work day. Certainly the result could have been different if the employee were, for example, paid in piece-work and left entirely unsupervised in terms of whether or when they wished to work.
This decision also creates a tension between the employer’s responsibility for employee incidents suffered “in the course of work” and yet in the employee’s private home over which the employer has no control in terms of health and safety. Future decisions of courts and tribunals may clarify this tension, but at the moment it appears as though the risk of workplace injury in a home office represents a potential liability employers will have to weight against other benefits of telecommuting and remote work.