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Work travel makes me sick

Q. I recently traveled to the Middle East for work, and while there got food poisoning and had to go to the hospital. As a result, I had to pay significant out of pocket expenses because the hospital was "out of network" under my insurance plan.

Because this was a work trip, I thought this would be a workers compensation claim. My Human Resources Director said no, that I needed to pay it and the company wasn't liable. Who is right?

A. Organizations have a wide range of practices when it comes to business travel, and understanding these prior to travel is strongly recommended. Questions often arise about what is reimbursable, ownership of air miles, and even when travel starts and is completed.

Because this question involves workers compensation issues, which are legally bound, and not just a company policy or practice, I consulted with Attorney Josiah Black of Bello Black & Welsh LLP, a leading Labor and Employment law firm in Boston. Attorney Black found the question a good one.

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"The answer may vary under the laws of different states, and the law of the state in which the employee regularly works will control. The availability of workers' compensation benefits depends on whether the employee's food poisoning arose "in the course of employment", Black commented.

Attorney Black continued, "You state that the employee was traveling on business, but this does not end the inquiry. Under the law of most states, the outcome would turn on whether the employee was eating a meal that was business-related at the time he/she became ill. If the meal took place during the working day or if the employee was eating with colleagues or a client at the time, it is likely that the illness would be deemed covered by workers' compensation insurance. Conversely, if the employee was eating alone or with family members after the work day had ended, then benefits would probably not be available."

Employees who travel for business often believe that travel begins when they leave their home or office, and ends when they return to their home, with all occurring in between to be considered business travel. Clearly, this is often not considered the case, and employers and employees need to make sure they understand, and are in agreement as to where responsibility starts and ends- prior to travel.


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