‘Tis the season for holiday parties and other work group activities that occur outside of business hours and off business premises. These events can be a great way to demonstrate company appreciation and build camaraderie in the workforce. In general, workers' compensation benefits are paid for injuries that occur during the performance of work. However, workers' compensation may also cover injuries that happen at company-sponsored parties, outings, travel, and sporting events despite the absence of any actual work activity. Ohio considers an injury to be “work-related” when it happens while the employee is acting “in the course and scope of employment.” For off-the-clock activities, the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation (BWC) examines whether the activity is consistent with the employment and logically related to the employer’s business for the benefit of the employer. If the activity encourages employee relations or is intended to improve morale, then it benefits the employer’s business. As such, any injuries to employees occurring during these events may be covered by workers’ comp.
Team-building, employee camaraderie, and promoting health and fitness provide benefits to employers and are reasons to encourage off-the-clock recreation. Some of these events are employee-led and organized, while others are specifically sanctioned by the company. Determining whether an event is company-sponsored impacts the application of workers’ compensation. Factors to consider include the degree of employer sponsorship and company benefits from the event, as well as, more specifically:
- Whether the activity takes place on company property or the employer paid for the rental of the location where the event occurred;
- When the event is during normal working hours, whether attending the event may be considered within the course of employment even if the employee is not paid for the time;
- Whether the employer paid the league fees (e.g., a softball league) or purchased equipment or uniforms for the team;
- If the employer supervises the team or event;
- If only employees are permitted to be on the team or attend the event; and
- Whether employee attendance is mandatory or voluntary.
As stated, a key factor in these activities is whether employee participation is legitimately voluntary. Accordingly, the requirement or expectation of attendance is integral to that determination. If an employee has to choose between the event, losing pay, or spending a vacation day, attendance may be considered mandatory and within the scope of employment. When an employee chooses between participating in the event or working their regular job, the choice may be considered voluntary. However, if a reasonable person could infer that success at work is partially contingent on participation, the recreational activity may not be truly voluntary regardless of the employee’s decision to participate.
According to the BWC, “an injury or disability incurred during voluntary participation in an employer sponsored recreation or fitness activity is not compensable if the injured worker signed a waiver of the right to workers' compensation benefits prior to engaging in the recreation or fitness activity.” In other words, if participation is voluntary and an employee signed a form acknowledging the risks and waiving the right to workers’ compensation, the employee probably will not be able to collect benefits if an injury occurs. The C-159 waiver form available from the BWC asks the employee to list all employer-sponsored recreational and fitness program activities and events for which they are waiving the right to workers' compensation. Employers should also work with legal counsel to design a general release of liability for employees participating in recreational events that include statements that the employee assumes the risk of injury, that participation is voluntary, and that confirms the company will exercise no supervision or sponsorship of the event.
For additional information about this topic, please contact Agnes Stucke or any member of our Workplace Solutions team at Ice Miller.
This publication is intended for general information purposes only and does not and is not intended to constitute legal advice. The reader must consult with legal counsel to determine how laws or decisions discussed herein apply to the reader's specific circumstances.