Should You Let Your Employees Telecommute? Legal Questions to Consider
Telecommuting has advantages — you may save on office costs, and employees tend to work longer hours. But working from home also carries legal implications you may not have thought about. Here are some of the top issues to think about if you’re considering allowing employees to telecommute.
Your employee might be working at home, but you are responsible for the safety of his or her workplace — even if the workers are just sitting at a desk all day.
“If employers pay no attention to the ergonomics of an employee’s work environment and the employee develops an injury, the employer’s going to be 100 percent liable for that,” warns Robert Brody, a labor law attorney in Westport, Conn. “If you’re a dummy standing on your head doing your work, it’s still the employer’s problem.”
For this reason, companies sometimes hire firms to help telecommuting workers set up ergonomic workplaces. Some ergonomics consultants visit employees’ homes to ensure their workstations are set up properly. Others use online and phone evaluations instead.
“If you worked in my office building and I said, ‘Hey, you look sexy,’ we’d agree I shouldn’t have said that — it’s clearly sexual harassment,” says Brody. “But if I send you an email or a fax at home with a dirty joke, I’m not sending it to you at your ‘home;’ I’m sending it to you at ‘work.’ All those [harassment] rules still apply.”
The key, says Brody, is to treat remote workers just as if they are workers in your building.
Overtime and other wage/hour issues
Wage and hour rules still apply, even if the employee is working from home. However, distractions at home can make it difficult to track time.
“If someone calls you when you work at home at 7 a.m., you may pick up, even though you’re not supposed to start until 8,” says Brody.
Or, people might choose to work through their lunch breaks. “I can’t say, ‘It’s her fault she didn’t take lunch; what am I going to do?’” says Brody. “I have to make sure she takes lunch.”
For this reason, he says, documenting an employee’s hours and ensuring they stick to prescribed schedules is essential.
A telecommuting employee with access to the company network and data can present a security risk, even unknowingly, says Jason Shinn, a West Bloomfield, Mich., attorney specializing in workplace technology issues.
Perhaps the employee does his work on a family computer used by others, with non-secure network connections. Or an employee could be the only one with certain data on his home computer. If he leaves, you’ve lost that material.
“It is highly recommended that all remote work either be done on an employer-owned laptop or through a direct connection to the network,” says Shinn. “At minimum, employees should be provided with computer security ‘best practices’ training and required to acknowledge in writing that such policies will be followed.”