Roberto Ceniceros blogs about the New York appeals court ruling in Frank P. Torre v. Logic Technology, which awarded workers comp benefits to an employee for an injury sustained in the gym. Usually, injuries sustained in extracurricular activities aren't covered by workers comp, but there are exceptions, such as when injuries occur during "mandatory attendance" events or while an employee is on business travel (see our past posts: Mandatory fun: when recreational activities are compensable and When play becomes work, or the case of the traveling employee).
On first glance, a case like this might seem open and shut. The employee was on his own time at the gym - the injury did not appear to arise out of and in the course of employment. But on closer examination, the court apparently determined that gym participation was furthering the employer's interest for the networking potential. (Is gym the new golf?) When it is determined that an employer has derived significant business benefit from an activity - such as interacting with clients and prospects - then an activity may be compensable.
The courts also noted that the employer encouraged and sponsored this activity. In this case, the sponsorship entailed reimbursement for membership fees. One has to wonder what kind of chilling effect a ruling like this could have on wellness programs. Employers frequently incent employees by paying for or supplementing gym membership, exercise programs, and weight loss or smoking cessation programs. Some companies offer financial incentives for participating in wellness programs or disincentives such as increased cost for insurance for not participating.
This type of endorsement and sponsorship can be tricky when it comes to workers comp. In days gone by, sponsorship generally referred to softball or bowling teams and employers could take some steps top mitigate risks. But as employers become more aggressive about wellness programs in an effort to control health care costs and these wellness programs become more ingrained in the corporate culture, does the compensability exposure increase? Some of the variables that have come into play in determining compensability are the location and time of the activity - is the gym on the employer's premises? Does the activity take place during work hours? Another factor is how strongly the company encourages participation and whether participation is purely voluntary. If a corporate culture is such that it so strongly endorses an activity, the issue of whether participation is truly voluntary could be up for debate.
Comorbidities like obesity and diabetes have been shown to have an impact on claim frequency and severity so it would appear that wellness programs would have a positive net effect on workers comp costs. But good intentions can often have bad outcomes. Take the concept of programs that heighten worker awareness about safety and incent workers for best practices - that may sound great on the surface, but The New York Times recently reported on safety incentive programs that ran headlong into the law of unintended consequences.