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Workplace Injuries (and False Alarms)

12. June 2014 09:08

Closeup of woman massaging her wrist near a laptop

As we’ve discussed, the workplace is a breeding ground for employment discrimination lawsuits. (Need a refresher? Check out the post “Hiring an Employee? Know What Can Go Wrong.”) But other things can go wrong at the office, too.

For example, what happens if a hostile work environment culminates in a physical injury? Which insurance policy do you need to protect your business from the high cost of the claim?

You may know from our post “What Is Workers’ Compensation Insurance?” that occupational injuries are a Workers’ Comp issue. But, if an injury is the result of discrimination, bullying, or harassment, you may have an Employment Practices Liability claim on your hands, too.

Does Workers’ Compensation Cover Injuries Caused by Harassment?

Sometimes harassment, discrimination, and bullying don’t lead to the courtroom, but to the hospital. Say, for instance, an employee’s manager picks on her during office meetings and impedes her ability to properly do her job. The constant tension from a hostile environment led the bullied employee to develop poor desk posture. After enough time, she develops carpal tunnel syndrome.

But because the bullying doesn’t revolve around her being a woman – at least, not outwardly – she can’t seek legal action against the supervisor or her company for illegal harassment. Instead, she brings her issue to the business’s HR representative. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute’s FAQ page, the employee will likely be given two options from here:

If she moves forward with the Workers’ Comp option and her claim is approved, she may be put on short-term disability. If she is fired during her disability leave, she may be able to file an employment practices liability lawsuit for wrongful termination.

The Gray Area Between Employment Practices Liability & Workers’ Comp Issues

Sometimes, it can be hard to tell where an Employment Practices Liability claim ends and a Workers’ Comp claim begins. For example, when an employee experiences emotional or mental distress as a result of their work environment, it’s usually an EPLI claim. But when a hostile work environment triggers an employee’s bodily injuries, ailments, or diseases, that’s clearly a Workers’ Comp problem – at least in the U.S.

However, the line is still ambiguous when it comes to bodily injuries related to work harassment. It’s likely your employee could file a Workers’ Comp claim for work stress that exacerbates cardiovascular problems. But that’s no assurance that they won’t also file an employment practices liability lawsuit if they are continually subjected to a hostile work environment.

When the EEOC Can Step In

As we mentioned in “Harassment, Bullying, and Discrimination in the Workplace,” workplace bullying isn’t illegal in the U.S. However, if certain groups of people are bullied for their race, age, disability, religion, or sex, the issue is considered illegal harassment and falls under the jurisdiction of Equal Employment Opportunity laws.

If a member of this protected group suffers a work injury because of the harassment, your business could be in even deeper trouble. Your employee can collect Workers’ Comp benefits for the injury, plus they can report the issue to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The EEOC can impose heavy fines on your business for breaking anti-discrimination laws. The employee can also file their own lawsuit against your business for harassment.

What You Can Do to Protect Your Business from Workplace Injuries and Harassment Claims

As soon as you hire employees, you should purchase Workers’ Compensation Insurance. Most states require employers to carry the coverage, even if they only have one employee. (To learn what your state has on the books, check out our guide Workers’ Compensation Insurance Laws by State.)

The policy can pay for medical benefits and replacement wages when your employees suffer occupational injuries and ailments (including those that arise from work stress and harassment).

If an employee sues your business for discrimination, Employment Practices Liability Insurance can help you survive the financial fallout. This small business insurance policy covers your business when current, past, and prospective employees sue over…

To learn more about EPLI, read “What Is Employment Practices Liability Insurance (EPLI)?

This post is part of an ongoing series on Employment Practices Liability Insurance, the high cost of employment discrimination lawsuits, and EEOC laws. Stay tuned for more on what can go wrong when hiring (and firing) employees.

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