Beyond your employment, and beyond commuting, there are other activities which are required under your contract for the work that you do. And some of those activities can bring with them hidden perils or problems. When you are injured during one of those required activities, the United States Department of Labor can consider you to be covered.
But let’s go back to the beginning. The case in question is Steven Ritzheimer vs. Triple Canopy, Incorporated, and Allied World National Assurance Company. In 2012, Mr. Ritzheimer worked in Israel as a force protection officer under a contract between his employer and the United States Department of Defense. As a part of his contract, he lived in an apartment in Be’er Sheva, which his employer selected for him. He also had to live with a roommate who his employer assigned to him.
As a part of the duties of his employment, Mr. Ritzheimer worked a swing shift away from Be’er Sheva, and he worked a good twelve hours per day, seven days per week. However, his actual starting and ending hours did vary. In addition, he would wear his civilian clothes to the worksite (the worksites would change) and carried his uniform in a backpack. However, once he arrived at the day’s worksite, he would change into his uniform.
His uniform included a helmet and a Kevlar protection vest. He also carried weapons and ammunition, plus a gas mask and a medical kit. When asked about how much he thought his gear weighed, Mr. Ritzheimer estimated it to be about 100 pounds. Furthermore, the area was sandy and hot. It was windy and there were fly infestations, plus the area was prone to sandstorms. As anyone can well imagine, that meant he was often sweaty and dirty, with sand in his uniform by the end of his shift.
This made it rather difficult for Mr. Ritzheimer to comply with paragraph 3 of his contract, which required him to maintain a “neat and professional appearance, paying particular attention to [his] grooming, personal hygiene, bearing, clothing, and equipment while conducting business on behalf of the Company and the U.S. Government.”
As a result, he took a lot of showers, both after his shifts ended and on his days off.
It all changed on March 3, 2012. While Mr. Ritzheimer showered in his apartment, the shower curtain came out of the bath tub and the bathroom floor became wet. And then when he stepped out of the tub, he slipped and struck his right side on the edge of the tub. This was no minor incident, for he ended up in the hospital for three days for treatment of four broken ribs and even a punctured lung.
Although he tried to return to work, medics told him to return to the United States for further treatment. Therefore, he returned home in May of 2012. The American doctors found that his rib injuries had not healed properly, and so he had external fixation surgery on August 7, 2012. Doctors prescribed pain medications for Mr. Ritzheimer and, at the time of the initial hearing on his injuries, he was also taking medication for depression which apparently linked directly back to his change in circumstances. At the time of the hearing, he had permanent physical restrictions and had not worked since the injury.
The Employer’s Actions
Mr. Ritzheimer’s employer voluntarily paid him temporary total disability benefits from May 27, 2012 to September 25, 2013. In addition, they paid him permanent partial disability benefits starting on September 26, 2013. However, afterwards, the employer contested the matter.
Results of the Initial Hearing
In the initial administrative hearing, the Administrative Law Judge decided that Mr. Ritzheimer’s employment conditions created a ‘special zone of danger’ and that his injuries had arisen straight out of that.
The Employer’s Appeal
The employer challenged the administrative ruling, saying that Mr. Ritzheimer was only performing a personal act, e. g. showering, which was not related to any of the actual obligations or conditions of his employment. As a result, the employer felt Mr. Ritzheimer’s injuries should not have been covered under the Defense Base Act.
The Ruling on Appeal
The Benefits Review Board disagreed with the employer and, instead, found for Mr. Ritzheimer. They found so because, under the act, “an injury generally occurs in the ‘course of employment’ if it occurs within the time and space boundaries of the employment and in the course of an activity whose purpose is related to the employment.” The Board agreed with the Administrative Law Judge, who had said that, “the contractual requirement that employer’s employees maintain good hygiene was an obligation of claimant’s employment and that ‘[t]he hot and dirty conditions at the employment site would make fulfilling that obligation impossible without showering.’”
So, what does it all mean?
In the Ritzheimer case, the administrative hearing, and then the appeal to the Benefits Review Board, both came to the same conclusion. They said if an employer contractually requires an employee covered by the Defense Base Act to do something then, when the employee performs that task or action, the employee is considered to be working, and to be covered by the Act. And it does not matter where the employee attempted to fulfill that contractual requirement of their employment, even if that was away from the job site.
When your contract makes you do something, then you’re working when you do it.
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