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The Company Picnic: Voluntary Fun v. Mandated Risk

JODI MATHY
Post Loss Specialist, HNI

It has been a long winter and you would like to show your employees just how much you have appreciated their hard work this past year. You decide that it would increase morale if the company hosts a picnic. The company’s picnic committee has already started the planning. But has anyone considered what exposures your company may be inviting? From workers compensation claims to impaired driving accidents and sexual harassment, special events can pose some unique challenges and exposures.

If an employee is injured while participating in the water balloon toss, are they entitled to workers’ compensation benefits? I know that many of you may be thinking “no way!” Well let’s stop for a minute and look at some of the items that a court would examine when determining if the picnic is within the course of employment.

  • Was participation in the event mandated either overtly or impliedly?
  • Does your company derive any direct benefit from the employee’s participation?
  • Does the event take place on company premises?
  • At what time of day does the event take place?

Many courts have come to the conclusion that if an event is purely voluntary, that it takes place off premises, and after normal business hours, an injury occurring during the event could not be considered conduct within the course and scope of their employment. 

It makes sense right? If an employee volunteers to participate, how could the company be held liable for his injury? But you really want to have the picnic during the work day. Ask yourself: Is our event during normal business hours and would an employee lose a day of pay for not attending or have to use their paid time off benefits? If the answer to this question is yes, then you may have just exposed your company to a workers’ compensation claim. You have implied through these consequences that you expect participation in the event. Your event would no longer be viewed by the courts as voluntary.

How do you avoid this exposure? You simply allow all employees who chose not to voluntarily participate in the event to work their normal work day and be paid just like any other day. It is important that your company does not require attendance at company-sponsored events. Every state law can vary a bit, it is never black and white, but in general this practice will help your company mitigate their risk. When planning your company-sponsored social event this summer take extra precaution and you will reduce your company’s risk while making your event safe and fun!

Topics: Construction Transportation Safety / Compliance Manufacturing