ACC’s new working-from-home policy a potential pain in the neck – for its own staff

Chiropractors are already busting at the seams from a surge in bookings from punters who have cricked their neck or strained their back by slouching on the couch with their notebook computer over the past 12 months or so – which of course has seen a surge in working-from-home.

Now they could see yet more business, and from an unlikely source: ACC staff.

The state insurer’s official working-from-home checklist includes a monitor at eye level, a keyboard and mouse, and ergonomic chair – the sort of setup that chiropractors recommend to avoid neck and back strains, which, of course, can spark ACC claims.

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Yet under a new policy being phased in by August, ACC will only supply laptops for those of its 3700 staff who take up a new option to work up to two days a week from home – and with them the temptation to slouch on the couch. It’s up to staff to buy their own monitor, keyboard and mouse.

Staff need the extra gear. ACC has registered a spike in home injury claims (see below) and chiropractor Sam Baktash tells the Herald that laptop-only use is the single biggest cause of a jump in patients with neck, lower-back and headache problems.

But if they do shell out, Inland Revenue says it’s not tax-deductible. In most cases, you can only claim for home office expenses if you’re self-employed or have a side-hustle. Working for an employer means it has to come out of their pocket or, if they’re too tight, yours.

IRD says it’s optional whether an employer provides a special allowance to cover some or all of your home office expenses.

Legal grey area

But what about the broader law?

Chapman Tripp employment law expert Vonda Engels notes the Health and Safety at Work Act says employers have to take steps to “ensure an employee’s safety so far as is reasonably practicable”, whether a staffer is working in the office, from home, or on the road.

But does the definition of “safety” extend to good ergonomics?

“That’s a grey area,” Engels says.

With Crown agencies WorkSafe and the Employment Relations Authority both backlogged with working-from-home related claims, it could only be a matter of time before we get a precedent-setting decision that helps to define how the law should be interpreted.

But in the meantime, lawyers like Engels can only offer their opinions over who is responsible for home office costs.

The senior associate says organisations that offer an ergonomic workplace, with work-from-home as an option, are probably in the strongest position, to suggest staff pick up some or all of the tab and take their own responsibility for ailments that result from cutting corners.

Those who close branch offices or otherwise make working-from-home compulsory are probably in the weakest and would face a “fairly heavy expectation” to pick up most costs and ensure an ergonomic work environment at home.

Specialist employment lawyer Jennifer Mills says the possibility of pre-existing conditions add another layer of murk, under current employment and OSH laws.

“The key question is whether the provision of a laptop without accessories, is safe and won’t trigger or exacerbate any occupational overuse syndromes. This will be a question of fact in every case, and it will be incumbent on an employer in these circumstances to determine whether an employee has an underlying condition which may be exacerbated.

“If the working space from home is set up in a way which triggers or exacerbates an employee’s overuse syndrome, then an employer could be liable under the Employment Relations Act and/or the Health and Safety at Work Act.”

Get ahead of the play

Engels anticipates a test case outcome could well lead to a tightening of the law – “particularly for well-resourced organisations like ACC”. (The state insurer has around $47 billion salted away.)

She recommends getting ahead of the play, and making sure your next IT upgrade includes as much wireless gear as possible so it’s easy for staff to take home a headset, keyboard and mouse and other peripherals.

Another option is subsidising gear. Datacom NZ managing director Justin Gray says his company is offering its 3000 local staff discounted hardware.

Engels also recommends companies limit their liability, and encourage good practices, by offering ergonomic assessments of employees’ various efforts to set up a home office.

Site visits can be expensive, but she says many firms are now offering remote assessments by video.

Jump in claims

ACC data suggests anecdotal accounts from chiropractors about working from home being a pain in the neck are correct.

Although it has no discrete category for home office ACC says the cost of work-related injuries that happened in the home climbed by $12m to $125m in the lockdown-hit 2020, versus 2019.

ACC requires staff to be ergonomic – at their own expense

ACC chief talent officer Sharon Champness told the Herald earlier this week that employees who work remotely can choose to purchase additional IT and office equipment if they wish.

“During the Covid lockdown, almost all of our 3700 employees were able to work from home while continuing to deliver a high-quality service to New Zealanders.

“After lockdown alert levels eased, our employees told us they valued having flexible working options. We know there are significant wellbeing benefits for our people, and we can achieve this while effectively supporting our clients.

“ACC has introduced a flexible working policy based on the principles of doing right by our customers, our people and each other.

“For most ACC employees this policy means being able to work remotely, for up to two days a week if they wish. While almost all of our employees have the option to work from home, not all are choosing to take up this option.

“For those that do, ACC requires them to provide a safe, secure and private working environment with a reliable internet connection, and a workstation with the equipment they need to maintain productivity and comfort while working.

“ACC has invested in providing all our people with a laptop, or equivalent, by the end of August 2021.This will also ensure ACC has an increased business continuity capability to support New Zealanders. Employees who work remotely can choose to purchase additional IT and office equipment if they wish.”

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