Eligibility for workers’ comp in Georgia when hurt while off the clock
It’s common for injured workers to have questions or concerns about their workers’ compensation rights. Although most people know the term, understanding the nuances can be quite complex.
At its most basic, workers’ compensation is a state-run insurance system that allows workers to collect compensation for medical bills and lost wages if they are injured on the job. In all states, workers’ compensation is a “no-fault” system, meaning that the employee doesn’t need to establish that their employer or a coworker was negligent for the injury in order to be owed compensation. In fact, even if the injured worker contributed to their own injury, they are still covered.
However, the boundaries of workers’ compensation are not limitless.
In most cases, the employee must establish that they were injured within the course of their employment, rather than during an “individual pursuit.” This statement has some deeply impactful ramifications.
For example, what happens if you are injured during your lunch break, or during a smoke break? Is that considered an “individual pursuit,” or in the course and scope of your job?
It quickly becomes apparent that the boundary between work and personal time is not as clear as you might think. If you’re injured during a break from work, here’s what you need to know.
The courts have spoken: the lunch break exception
For most employees, legal precedent provides some discouraging news.
In a landmark case titled Frett v. State Farm Employee Workers’ Compensation, the Georgia courts held that an employee’s lunch break or rest period during a workday is an individual pursuit, not the course of employment. This means injuries that occur during a lunch break or rest period may not be covered by workers’ compensation.
Although this decision has held for some time, it was recently reaffirmed and broadened. In that case, the courts decided that a worker who was preparing to leave for their lunch break, but still on employer grounds, was also not entitled to compensation for injuries.
This case served to confirm the so-called “lunch break exception” to workers’ compensation rights. In essence, if you aren’t working, you aren’t entitled to benefits.
Workers’ compensation isn’t that simple
As with most legal concepts, the entire breadth of the law can’t be summed up quite so easily. Seemingly in conflict with the prior example, Georgia has a long-standing rule holding that employees injured during “ingress or egress” from the employer’s premises are indeed entitled to workers’ compensation if they are injured.
You can quickly see the issue with this logic. If you stay at work for lunch and are injured, you aren’t entitled to compensation. But if you leave and injure yourself while leaving the premises, you are.
The courts have acknowledged this discrepancy, but so far the resolution has not been in favor of workers’ rights. Rather, the Court of Appeals noted that it would no longer apply the ingress and egress rule in cases of breaks or lunch hours.
Whether or not the break was scheduled matters
Based on prior cases and legal references, you may be led to believe that workers are never entitled to compensation if they are injured during breaks. However, the law is not quite that strict. There is a distinct difference between scheduled breaks and unscheduled breaks.
This distinction was highlighted in the case Wilkie v. Travelers Insurance Company. Within this case, an employee was injured during a restroom visit on a scheduled 10-minute break from work. Because this was a scheduled break, the court determined that the employee was “free to use the time as they pleased,” and thus “any injury that occurs during this time is due to an individual pursuit, not due to his or her employment.”
In short, if you’re hurt during a scheduled break, you will most likely not be eligible for workers’ compensation.
Yet, unscheduled breaks don’t fall under this rule.
The counterpoint to the above case is Edwards v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Company. In this instance, the plaintiff was hurt during a bathroom visit, but the break was not scheduled. Rather, she had simply excused herself from her station to use the restroom. The court found that, because Mrs. Edwards was not free to use this time as she pleased, anything that occurred during this time was within the course of her employment. Therefore, because she was still “at work,” she was entitled to workers’ compensation.
The court summed it up succinctly, saying:
“[W]hen the employee finds it necessary to go to the restroom, even though he is permitted to do so without obtaining permission from his supervisor, it’s not the employee’s free time as it can’t be considered an altogether personal pursuit, as is the case during scheduled breaks.”
Be clear with your employer
As you can tell, the differences between a successful workers’ compensation claim and an unsuccessful one can be quite specific. Because of the importance of these details, it’s important to establish with your employer which breaks are scheduled and which are not.
If you are injured during an unscheduled break, you deserve the compensation that is designed to protect you, your family and your rights.
Speak with an experienced Georgia work injury attorney
If you were injured at work, it’s always in your best interest to speak to a reputable attorney with experience navigating Georgia workers’ compensation laws, such as Gerber & Holder Law.
Whether you were injured at work off the clock or injured while leaving work, you should always speak with an attorney to determine your rights and the most efficient way to get you the compensation you deserve. Time can be of the essence in these tricky cases, so make sure you discuss your case as soon as you can.