Human Resources

A Real-World Case Demonstrates Need for Telecommuter Training

Yesterday’s Advisor provided a hypothetical case study that could be used in ethics training. Today, we discuss a real-world case that is also a learning experience—it drives home the importance of training managers in the supervision of telecommuters.

Managers who supervise telecommuters need to know whether their employees are putting in the required hours and/or getting their work done at home. However, managers also need to be aware of whether telecommuters are taking enough breaks from their sedentary work. A recent court case demonstrates some of the important implications that must be considered when training both managers and their telecommuting subordinates.

What Happened

“Riley,” an AT&T employee for about 25 years, worked from her home office as a salaried manager in September 2007 under a telecommuting arrangement. She generally worked 3 days per week at home and went to the office for the other 2 business days.

Her job responsibilities included formulating and executing contingency plans for AT&T. Although the company considered her job to be a 9-to-5 job, she worked at all hours in her home office, apparently sometimes starting as early as 7:25 a.m., working as late as 2 a.m., and regularly exceeding 40 hours per week.

On September 24, 2007, Riley was trying to complete a project that was due the next day. She was working when one of her three teenagers went to bed at about 10:30 p.m. that night. At 11 p.m., she spoke on the telephone to her husband, who was away on a business trip. Riley told her husband that she might have to work through the night to finish the project. E-mail records showed that Riley e-mailed a coworker at 12:26 a.m. early the next morning.

When her son awoke at about 7 a.m., Riley was working. While accompanying him to his school bus stop at approximately 7:50 a.m., she grabbed her leg and said it hurt. Riley sent additional work-related e-mails that morning. Around 9 a.m., she informed a coworker that, although she did not feel well, she would still finish the project, and, in fact, she did. Riley last e-mailed her coworkers at about 10:30 a.m.

An hour later, she telephoned for an ambulance. When emergency medical services workers arrived, they found her lying on the floor in her home, screaming, “I can’t breathe. Help me! I’m choking! Help me!” Despite efforts to help her, she was pronounced dead after being transported to the hospital. An autopsy showed that the cause of death was a “pulmonary thromboembolism,” which was lodged in her pulmonary artery.

Riley’s husband filed a dependency claim petition with the New Jersey Division of Workers’ Compensation. Testifying in support of his claim, a medical expert said that the sedentary nature of Riley’s work caused the pulmonary embolism that led to her death, and that a clot had formed in her leg 12 to 24 hours before she died.

A medical expert for AT&T presented conflicting testimony, saying Riley’s pulmonary embolism was caused by a combination of risk factors (i.e., obesity, use of birth control pills, age, and an enlarged heart), and those risk factors contributed to the formation of the clot more than the fact that she had sat for an extended period of time while completing the project.

The judge of compensation awarded dependency benefits to Riley’s husband, and AT&T appealed.

The Appellate Division of the Superior Court considered “whether … [Riley’s] lack of movement at work was more severe than her lack of movement in her daily living, and whether the inactivity at work caused her pulmonary embolism in a material way.”

The panel concluded that there was enough credible evidence “to support the judge of compensation’s finding that her work inactivity was greater than her nonwork activity.” The panel affirmed the judge of compensation’s decision, saying the claim was compensable under a section of New Jersey law pertaining to cardiovascular workers’ compensation claims. AT&T appealed to the Supreme Court of New Jersey.

What the Court Said

The Supreme Court reversed, saying Riley’s husband did not have a compensable claim. “Unlike certain other occupations in which prolonged confinement in a cramped space is a job requirement … [Riley’s] responsibilities did not require her to remain in a seated position for long, uninterrupted stretches of time. She was not confined to a specific space or instructed not to move from her workstation,” the Court said. “Moreover, at both her home and employer workstations … [she] had control over her body position and movement while working. She was free to take breaks, during which she could stand, stretch, leave her workstation for a bathroom break or refreshments, or briefly exercise. At home, nothing prevented … [her] from conducting conference calls while standing or reclining.”

“In short … [Riley] was free to move around at will during her work hours,” the Court continued. “Prolonged sitting, uninterrupted by breaks to stand, walk, or exercise, was not a condition compelled by her job.”

Renner v. AT&T (No. A-71) (Supreme Court of New Jersey, 7/30/14)

The Training Takeaway

Although this case specifically deals with workers’ compensation law in New Jersey, it also has training implications for employers in other states. The employer ultimately “won” the Supreme Court level, but in reality, on top of expensive litigation, the employer lost a long-time employee to a very tragic ending. Managers should be trained on the health and productivity benefits of taking periodic breaks, as well as any statutory break requirements, such as meal and rest periods under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and state laws.

Orientation training for telecommuters should address those issues as well. Furthermore, managers should be checking in with telecommuters about their expectations regarding work hours, even if they are exempt employees.

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