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Traveling Employee to Become the Rule Rather than the Exception?

By Christopher Galanos

Under the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act, injuries sustained by an employee traveling to and from work are generally not compensable.  A long-standing exception to this rule has been carved out by Illinois courts when dealing with traveling employees–those who are required to travel away from the employer’s premises in order to perform their job.  In general, these types of employees are considered to be in the course of their employment from the time they leave home until the time they return home. The Appellate Court’s recent decision inVenture-Newburg Perini Stone & Webster v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission threatens to expand this limited exception and, according to the dissenting opinion, could potentially lead to unintended consequences.
            
In Venture-Newburg, the Petitioner was a pipe fitter who lived in Springfield, Illinois and who was hired on a temporary bases to perform maintenance and repair work at a nuclear power plant in Cordova, Illinois, 250 miles from Springfield. During this temporary period of employment, the Petitioner stayed at a hotel located approximately 30 miles from the Cordova plant.   The Petitioner was not reimbursed by the Respondent for travel or lodging expenses and the Respondent did not direct the Petitioner to stay in a hotel while working at the Cordova site. Respondent also did not direct what route the Petitioner was to take to the job site.  One morning, en route from his hotel to the job site, the Petitioner was involved in a motor vehicle accident and sustained injuries.

In its consideration of whether the Petitioner was a traveling employee entitled to benefits, the Appellate court noted that 1) the employee was assigned to work at a nuclear power plant in Cordova, Illinois which was in excess of 200 miles from his home and 2) the premises at which the employee was assigned to work was not the premises of his employer.  Based on these facts, the court found that the Petitioner was a traveling employee within the meaning of the exception, and that because the injury occurred in a reasonably foreseeable manner, the claim was compensable.

Not all of the Justices who heard the case at the Appellate Court agreed with the decision.  Dissenting Justices pointed out that the majority’s opinion could lead to unintended consequences such as allowing an employee who voluntarily chooses to live remotely from the place of employment to became a “traveling employee.”  Additionally, and perhaps more significantly, the dissent found that the under the approach taken by the majority, any employee hired to work at a temporary job site, not owned by the employer, even if the employee resides in close proximity to the job site, would arguably become a “traveling employee” entitled to benefits for an injury that occurred traveling to or from work.

In sum,  the case mechanically applied the elements of the traveling employee exception and reached the conclusion that the Petitioner was entitled to benefits. While the majority’s decision may be defensible under the letter of the traveling employee exception, the unintended consequences of the decision, as pointed out by the dissent, may result in the Commission finding more Petitioner’s to be “traveling employees” thus eroding the long-standing rule that injuries sustained traveling to and from work are not compensable under the Act.

Originally published in the Spring 2013 edition of Quinn Quarterly