Bah, Humbug! Are Holiday Injuries Covered by Work Comp?
‘Tis the season for questions about holiday parties and the associated risk of having one. Beyond deciding what to call the party, employers are often concerned about potential fallout from parties – in particular, “If my employee is injured at the party, is the company on the hook for work comp benefits?” The worry can be enough squelch the festive mood.
Minn. Stat. § 176.021, subd. 9, provides that injuries incurred while participating in voluntary recreational programs sponsored by the employer, including health promotion programs, athletic events, parties and picnics, do not arise out of and in the course of employment. The exceptions typically are: (1) When an employee is ordered or assigned by the employer to participate in the program or activity; or (2) When the employer-sponsored party is intended to serve some other business objective, i.e. promoting goodwill or marketing between the employer and its customers. In these circumstances, the injuries sustained are generally covered by the Workers’ Compensation Act. Sometimes it can be hard to determine what is truly “voluntary” when it comes to the company holiday party.
Case in point, in Boraas v. Strand-Saboe VFW #5247, the employer would host an annual Christmas party for employees and their guests (no customers). An employee slipped and fell while dancing with a coworker at the party and the judge found, and the appellate court agreed, that because the attendance was not “entirely voluntary,” the employee’s injury was covered under the Act. The evidence showed that there was a notice and sign-up sheet for the party, and that the employer questioned employees who were not signed up to obtain a reason for not attending. Further, the employees who decided not to attend, though not disciplined, were subject to sarcasm and ridicule. At the party, there was an attendance/sign-in sheet and the employee testified at hearing about the overall importance placed upon the employee’s attendance by the employer and her belief that she was expected by the employer to attend the function. These facts were sufficient to make the Christmas party injury compensable under the Act.
Say you want to forego the party and just give out the holiday ham or turkey – that’s safe, right? Not necessarily. An employee who had been on a leave and received notification that she could come to pick up her holiday turkey, and then slipped and fell in the parking lot, was held to have a compensable injury. The court likened it to situations where an employee is injured on the employer’s premises while picking up a paycheck. It appears that the enticement of the “turkey bonus” was an anticipated benefit on the part of the employee and attributable to the employment relationship and the injury sustained while collecting the turkey was covered under the Act.
You don’t have to be like Scrooge and ban the holidays from work, just remember that when it comes to parties, do not require and police attendance – voluntary must be voluntary. And, if you are giving your employees the holiday goose, turkey or ham, think about sending them a gift card instead.