Fearing the unknown dangers and potential liabilities associated with the possibility of interoffice spread, many employers in nonessential industries — i.e., those with business models that do not necessarily require an in-person workspace — opted to shut down their offices during the early days of the pandemic.
A December study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that — of workers with responsibilities that can mainly be done from home — 80% indicated that they "rarely or never" teleworked before the pandemic.
Comparatively, 71% of respondents now report doing their job from home all or most of the time, and 64% of those workers state "that their workplace is currently closed or unavailable to them."
Many employees that have been forced to work from home have faced extreme challenges with the transition. For instance, one man I interviewed reported having moved with his girlfriend from Phoenix to San Francisco for their jobs before the pandemic.
When the pandemic hit, his employer mandated telework. Given the limited space in their dated one-bedroom apartment, the man was forced to set up a makeshift workspace in a cramped and windowless closet while his girlfriend — who was also forced by her employer to work from home whenever practicable — set up temporary workspaces in the kitchen, bedroom and wherever else she could find space.
In addition to California's intense lockdowns, the mandatory telework and lack of adequate workspace in their dated and cramped apartment resulted in significant stress on both parties causing the couple to move back to Arizona in October.
Chalk it up to mental fortitude or luck, but neither party sustained a mental injury as a result of this situation. Many similarly situated people would have broken in the face of such stressful circumstances.
Such challenges are not uncommon, especially for younger workers, who often live in smaller or shared residences and, therefore, have been forced to work from their bedrooms, couches, kitchens, and similar uncomfortable locations.
The above-mentioned Pew study found that nearly one-third of workers between the ages of 18 and 49 reported some or much difficulty finding an adequate home workspace, and 16% of workers older than 50 reported the same.
Notably, lacking adequate workspace is not the only stressor forced upon employees who have been barred from their offices.
Among those employees teleworking all or most of the time now, a notable portion of the respondents reported difficulties getting their work done without interruptions, feeling motivated to do their work, meeting deadlines, and having adequate technology and equipment to do their jobs.
One might think that increased stressors such as the foregoing would lead to a jump in the number of Arizona workers' compensation benefits being paid for mental injuries arising from stress related to COVID-19.
However, even if an Arizona employee was to file a workers' compensation claim for an injury generally related to COVID-19, the likelihood of that claim being paid is extremely low.
According to a study by the Workers Compensation Research Institute examining the number of benefits paid out for COVID-19-related claims as compared to other claims during the second quarter of 2020, the number of benefits paid out in Arizona for claims related to COVID-19 represented only 4% of all benefits paid during that period.
Presumably, only a small fraction — if any — of those claims likely involve injuries that are not directly related to the claimant having contracted COVID-19.
The low number of claims related to COVID-19 paid out in Arizona is about to change. Last week, the Arizona Supreme Court released an opinion paving the way for Arizona employees to recover workers' compensation benefits for mental injuries resulting from forced telework.
In France v. The Industrial Commission of Arizona, John France, a former Gila County sheriff's office sergeant, was awarded workers' compensation benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from an incident wherein he shot and killed a man who threatened his life with a shotgun during a welfare check.
The court found that — assuming a work-related event is a substantial contributing cause of a claimed mental injury — the injury is compensable if the cause was, from the standpoint of a reasonable employee with the same or similar job duties and training as the claimant, objectively "unexpected, unusual or extraordinary."
Specifically, where a particular "incident is not the type of incident that is part of [the employee's] daily routine, nor is it [reasonably] expected," a claim for a mental injury arising from such an incident is compensable.
In France, the court reasoned that although a shootout is an event that an employee such as the claimant may encounter during his or her employment as a police officer because such an event is objectively "exceedingly rare," the mental injury arising from this situation is compensable.
Applying the same reasoning, given the exceedingly rare nature of the unprecedented pandemic and the sudden transition to forced telework, a mental injury arising from these circumstances is also compensable.
Some may argue that the stressful circumstances causing France's mental injury are distinguishable from those relative to forced telework to the extent that the latter situation is not a specific causal incident.
A shootout is a singular stressful event whereas forced telework is stressful over time. However, irrespective of whether forced telework in response to the pandemic constitutes a sudden stressful event or a gradual onset of stress, one's mental injury resulting therefrom is probably compensable based on the analysis outlined in France.
The court explained, where a mental injury is caused by a gradual onset of work-related stress, the injury is compensable if the cause is not rooted in the usual, ordinary and expected incidents of the claimant's employment.
For example, a bus driver's mental injury is not compensable if caused by the "tension and stress derived from the responsibilities of driving" which constitutes "nothing other than the usual, ordinary and expected incidents of his job as a bus driver."
Comparatively, a mental injury caused by a gradual buildup of stress due to a dramatic increase in a claimant's workload and responsibilities is compensable.
Based on this reasoning, a mental injury resulting from the cumulative effect of stress caused by the dramatic transition to forced telework in response to the pandemic is likewise compensable.
Given the extraordinary nature and sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the concomitant shift to mandatory telework, the France decision opens the door for Arizona employees to receive workers' compensation benefits for mental injuries caused by the stresses associated with forced telework.
Ryan Heath is a trial attorney at Gilson Daub LLP.
The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
 Hereinafter "younger workers."
 Hereinafter "older workers."
 38% of younger workers and 18% of older workers.
 42% of younger workers and 20% of older workers.
 21% of younger workers and 14% of older workers.
 14% of younger workers and 12% of older workers.
 Kim Parker et al., How the Coronavirus Outbreak Has – and Hasn't – Changed the Way Americans Work, Pew Research Ctr., Washington, D.C. (Dec. 9, 2020), https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/12/09/how-the-coronavirus-outbreak-has-and-hasnt-changed-the-way-americans-work/.
 Olesya Fomenko and John Ruser, The Early Impact of COVID-19 on Workers' Compensation Claim Composition, Workers Compensation Research Institute (Jan. 2021), https://www.wcrinet.org/reports/the-early-impact-of-covid-19-on-workers-compensation-claim-composition.
 CV-20-0068-PR, 2021 Ariz. LEXIS 93 (Mar. 2, 2021).
 Id. at 7.
 Id. at 12.
 Id. at 11–14.
 Id. at 8.
 Id. at 8–9 (citing Muse v. Indus. Comm'n of Ariz ., 27 Ariz. App. 312, 313–14, 554 P.2d 908 (1976)).
 Id. at 9 (citing Fireman's Fund Ins. Co. v. Indus. Comm'n of Ariz. , 119 Ariz. 51, 53–54, 579 P.2d 555 (1978)).
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