Our New Normal: Returning to Work & its Impact to Employers and Employees

This “new” normal of hybrid work has significant implications for employers, and their employees.

3 years ago   •   6 min read

By The ReFocus Team


This is the third article in a series about how COVID-19 is changing Workers Compensation. Other articles include:

Take a moment to reflect on what your work-life was like pre-pandemic. Chances are most share similar experiences of traveling into an office environment, sharing common workspaces with co-workers, attending in-person meetings, and having face-to-face chats about our day. This comfort quickly dissolved once COVID-19 hit and turned our lives upside-down in March 2020. Our work lives, and personal lives diverged drastically for the next year. On the plus side, employers discovered it is possible for businesses to function while having their employees work from home.

Fourteen months after being sent home, we have entered a new era. People are getting their vaccine, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has relaxed their guidelines for fully vaccinated people, kids are returning to school, and people are going back to work.

Now that many employers know that their business will not suffer while employees work from home, an emerging trend is employers having their staff return to work using a hybrid model where they work three (3) days in the office, and two (2) days at home. This model will allow for employees to collaborate in an office environment, while also keeping up the morale of others who enjoy working from home.

Perfect, right? Now, it seems like everything can go back to normal… well, not so fast. This “new” normal has implications for employers, and their employees. Let’s take a deeper dive into what both groups need to be aware of, and how technology can help both groups comfortably adapt to this new way of life.

Traveling back and forth to work is changing

Employers, Telecommuters, and Class Codes

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the American Community Survey’s Data shows that over a 5-year period from 2019, 5.2% of Americans strictly worked remotely.

Number of U.S. workers who worked from home

In contrast, the BLS determined through use of their Household Pulse Survey, that between August 2020 and December 2020, at its peak, 36.9% of Americans teleworked during the pandemic. The BLS’s American Time Use Survey (ATUS) founded that in 2019, 24 percent of employed persons did some or all of their work at home on days they worked, and 82 percent of employed persons did some or all of their work at their workplace (ATUS, American Time Use Survey Summary, release date: June 25, 2020).

In this new era, employers need to ensure that they are classifying their employees properly

The above data shows American employers are more flexible in allowing its employees to work on a hybrid schedule rather than work from home full-time. In this new era, employers need to ensure that they are classifying their employees properly depending on their work from home status as this will have implications on an array of personnel matters, including workers’ compensation coverage for these employees.

Pre-pandemic, the Office and Clerical industry group comprises clerical employees who work in an office setting. These workers fall under class code 8810, and its telecommuting equivalent is under class code 8871. The National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) points out that in 2020:

  • Employees under class code 8810 accounted for 30%, or $734B of countrywide payroll, and
  • Employees under class code 8871 accounted for 0.5%, or $13B, of countrywide payroll

The NCCI believes that during the pandemic there was a lack of shift from class code 8810 to 8871 because:

  1. Employers used class code 8810 as it is customarily used for clerical employees;
  2. Employers may have reported class code 8810 under the 2020/2021 workers’ compensation policy, (but this may change accordingly in the next policy year), or;
  3. Employers believed working from home was going to be a short accommodation, and a shift to class code 8871 was not needed.

Going forward, employers need to research whether they should classify their employees under a telecommuter class code. It is quite possible for some workers to be switched under a designated-specific class code (i.e. Accountant,) and intermixed with other clerical employees who telecommute which will now be under class code 8871 for non-exempt states.

Put a plan together to transition into the 'New Normal'

What else do employers and employees need to be aware of when returning to work?

From a workers’ compensation perspective, employers opting to have their employees return to work on a hybrid schedule need to create a risk-management based model to ensure their employees are safe while working from home and in an office environment.

Recommendations include:

  1. Clear work hours to prevent burnout,
  2. Allowing and requiring employees to take mid-day breaks and lunches to prevent repetitive stress injuries, and
  3. Having safety guidelines in place that follow CDC, OSHA, and local regulations so that employees are safe at all times while working onsite.

Returning to work on a hybrid model is new for employers and for employees as well. Over time, employees will have questions for their employer, including:

  1. Am I considered on-the-clock while I am checking myself in prior to entering the office (i.e. completing my temperature check, and survey prior to entering the office)?
  2. If I am working a hybrid model, does my home also count as a second “place of employment”?
  3. If they consider my home another “place of employment”, then will I get paid for my commute to work if I am an hourly employee? Do I get a stipend to use my car to travel from my home to my office?
  4. If I am working on a hybrid model, and I were to get in a motor-vehicle accident while commuting to or from work, will workers’ compensation cover my injuries? Who will pay for the damages to my vehicle? Do I now need higher limits on my auto policy?

Employers should also think about the above as well, because this hybrid model may open them to additional risks and losses not planned for. Employers need to ensure they are covering themselves and getting necessary proof of auto liability coverages from their workers if appropriate. We anticipate that as the hybrid model becomes more popular amongst employers, the Department of Labor will offer additional guidance on how to track and pay employees’ working this new schedule.

Technology is helping people work safer

Technology in a New Era

“Returning to normal” was a common theme while going through the pandemic. However, this line of thinking needs to grow as we now have a new normal.

ReFocus AI’s Chief Data Officer, Nisar Hundewale, Ph.D. has a clear vision of how to leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to assist employees and employers return to work safely. Dr. Hundewale holds a Ph.D. from Georgia State University in Computer Science and his primary focus is AI and big data analytics. He has worked for large industries including Walmart, and other industries that focus on healthcare, and product development.

Dr. Hundewale believes AI can help employees return to work safely. Though use of applications that can be downloaded on a smartphone, people can see if they have been exposed to someone who had COVID, or if they came across anyone who interacted with another party who had COVID. Of course use of these applications are voluntary, and would require proper use by all users in order to be effective, Dr. Hundewale explained in these times, we have a social responsibility to keep all around us safe. Using this app would easily determine whether an employee had a potential exposure to another party with COVID-19. In doing so, it would prompt an employee who works in an office setting to quarantine so they do not potentially expose their co-workers to COVID-19.

Another interesting application that Dr. Hundewale discussed is a safe driving application that not only told its user the quickest route to work but also the safest. This application would be extremely helpful to both employees and employers, especially if employers have workers’ compensation and auto liability exposure on an employee’s travel to and from work under a hybrid model.

Lastly, Dr. Hundewale explained that the use of AI in an office setting can help employees collaborate more effectively by:

  1. Helping groups act on information quickly as AI will make predictions on outcomes.
  2. Forecasting outcomes would allow groups to manage their timeline on when they should react to certain scenarios for the best outcome, and
  3. Helping all groups break walls and communicate since predictions will help stakeholders take next steps in managing their risk.

Our new normal is a work in progress, and will be clear to us on due time. Until we get there, Dr. Hundewale’s assessment and recommendation on use of AI, if heeded, may be our saving grace at helping us navigate these uncertain times safely.

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