How does it work? Let’s say an employee suggests that she could save the company money and complete a lot more work if you let her work at home. Or maybe a worker has developed a “disability” that makes it hard for him to commute and he asks to work from home as a reasonable accommodation. If you don’t know the rules, a smart attorney will make you look guilty whether you deny the requests or grant them.
Consider the first request. You and your new telecommuter agree that she will work from home using her own computer equipment. She agrees to be available by telephone and e-mail during normal business hours but wants the flexibility to work at her own pace. At first, the arrangement works well; she’s productive and seems happy.
The problem comes later when she complains that her equipment is causing eyestrain and that her back hurts. That’s when she comes to see me. I tell her she may have a workers’ comp claim and send her for a medical examination. I also tell her she should track her hours, since you’re paying her hourly. It turns out that, with regular interruptions, she has been working 45 or 50 hours a week. We sue and collect workers’ comp for her back strain, the value of her equipment’s use and overtime pay for her extra hours. Oh, and plus my fee.
What about the disabled worker? Are you better off just denying his request? Probably not, because employers are required to discuss potential reasonable accommodations with disabled workers, and the quickest way to court is to ignore that obligation. That doesn’t mean you have to offer a telecommuting option, but you do have to discuss it and other possible solutions that let the worker perform his job.
How do you avoid my trap? Take these steps before approving a work-at-home request:
• Check with your insurance carrier for any special requirements, such as ergonomically correct equipment.
• Create a system to record the employee’s time accurately, and have her certify her hours regularly.
• Insist that telecommuters work regular hours and prohibit them—in writing—from working additional hours.