HVAC contractors are looking for ways to improve employee morale and foster company culture. One way many do that is by allowing technicians to take their work vehicles home with them. This minimizes drive time, a major factor in job satisfaction for technicians, and saves on fuel costs. Many HVAC contractors also see group events, including social gatherings and volunteer projects, as important for team building.
But are the benefits to the employees worth it? Because all this carries the risk of bringing a worker’s compensation claim. However, there are ways to mitigate that risk while retaining the benefits.
Allowing technicians to take company vehicles home is one of the most common perks and one of the most common sources of risk. According to data from ServiceTitan, technicians who drive more than 50 minutes for more than 20% of their jobs are 27% more likely to leave that company. If technicians can drive the work vehicle home from their last job and then to their first job the next morning, this can reduce drive time. In addition, it can save both the technician and the contractor on fuel costs, an important consideration today.
But much can go wrong in the course of driving a vehicle from one point to another. If there’s an accident and the employee is injured, it could trigger a worker’s comp claim. If the employee is at fault, that creates more potential problems, including the possibility of a lawsuit. In addition, a vehicle becomes lost for use while it’s in the repair shop or a police impound lot.
“The moment that employee gets in that employer-owned vehicle, the employer is on the hook for anything that employee does going forward,” said Kaleigh Vierra, an HR compliance consultant with Comprehensive Employment Solution (CES).
HR compliance consultant, Comprehensive Employment Solution
Clock can Start When the Key Turns
Then there’s the question of when an employee starts on the clock for pay reasons. Some states have very specific rules about when an employee needs to start being paid. That period could start while the technician is on the way to a job site in a company vehicle. In some states, it starts when the key is turned in the morning.
Employers who want to offer access to company vehicles need to make sure they do so as an optional perk, said Melanie Gentry, CEO for CES. The best practice remains having employees use their personal vehicles and leave work trucks at the firm’s offices.
Whatever policy an HVAC contractor chooses for the use of company vehicles, that policy needs to be clear and documented. Gentry said many generic handbooks, such as those provided by payroll services, often lack good driving policies. They are written for people who stay in one place all day long.
“It’s definitely something you want to be clear in your handbook,” Vierra said. “It’s definitely something you want to be clear in your onboarding process. And it’s definitely something you want to be clear in your training.”
Volunteering or Working?
Attorney Ken Scholtz of Tucker Arensberg said any time an HVAC contractor considers a new policy, it’s crucial to determine if it furthers the employer’s interest. That’s true for use of the company’s vehicles, and it’s true for community activities. Many younger employees say they want an employer that gives back to the community. However, volunteer events bring risk if they lack clear policies.
A recent New Jersey court case illustrates this risk. A cook at a nursing home made a worker’s comp claim when she fell while preparing a meal for a customer appreciation event. The cook was donating her time and participation was optional, but the court ruled in her favor because she performed the same tasks for which she would otherwise be paid, and because the event mainly benefitted the employer.
HVAC contractors often perform charitable activities, such as a free equipment installation, as a way to give back to the community and to enhance their image. Gentry said that it’s a best practice to pay employees who participate in these activities, just as the contractor would for a paid installation.
“It’s the company that’s doing this promotion, not the employees,” Gentry said.
It’s All Fun Until Some Files a Claim
Some off-duty activities are for the employees’ benefit, such as a company picnic. But even these must follow the right procedures to avoid risk. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recent awarded six years of retroactive wage loss to a worker who was injured driving home from a work-sponsored happy hour. Since the employee normally wouldn’t have been at the happy hour if not for work, Scholtz said, the court determined the employer was liable for the injuries.
Serving alcohol always increases risk. Vierra recommends taking steps to mitigate this risk, such as handing out drink tickets to limit intake or providing rides home. She said vendor-sponsored events carry less risk for the HVAC contractor, but some risk remains.
Even alcohol-free events need proper procedures. For example, axe throwing has become a popular social event for companies. Vierra said it’s important to get all the waivers properly filled out.
Many activities that promote company culture and morale, no matter how well-meaning, bring a certain amount of liability risk. In the end, HVAC contractors need to evaluate every policy and determine if it benefits the employer or the employee. Then they need to spell out these policies clearly and convey them to employees.“The biggest way to reduce any kind of liability is to make sure there is documentation, implementation, and an ongoing conversation about whatever that policy is,” Vierra said.