In Shire, the Court addressed two issues related to the exception contained in Minn. Stat. § 176.021, subd. 9, a provision providing employers with protection for injuries that occur at work-sponsored recreational events. The exception, in sum, provides that injuries occurring during “voluntary recreational programs” are not covered because they “do not arise out of and in the course of the employment.” The first issue addressed by the court was whether the event in this case was attended voluntarily by the employee. A second issue was whether the activity was a separate “program” for purposes of the exception.
In this case, the employee, as with all the other full-time employees, was encouraged to attend a work-sponsored employee-recognition event, slated to occur during the last 3 hours of the work day. The handbook informed employees that such events were “voluntary.” The event included a dinner with optional bowling and laser tag as well. The employee was told that he would, if he chose not to attend, need to request to use sick pay for the last three hours of the day or go without pay. It appears, from the Court’s review of the record before the compensation judge, that employees were not afforded the opportunity to simply remain at work.
On the issue of “voluntary,” the Court adopted the following definition for purposes of this subdivision within the statute: “acting of oneself: not constrained, impelled, or influenced by another.” As a result, the fact that there would potentially be a loss of pay or sick leave, were the employee to have elected to abstain from the party, the decision to attend was deemed involuntary and “constrained.” With regard to the sub-activity of “laser tag,” the Court determined that any and all separate activities during an event are all inseparable from the larger “program” contemplated by the statute.
Justice Anderson’s dissent focussed on the other definitions of “voluntary” and opined that a less restrictive definition permissive of some degree of incentive or disincentive would have been more practical. As the employer fully admitted, their goal was to incentivize attendance at the “employee-recognition event.” Unfortunately, that incentive was enough to eliminate the possibility of relying on subdivision 9 for relief.
Going forward, employers need to consider the circumstances in which sponsored programs occur. Options include offering employees the chance to continue working as well as the freedom not to attend without loss of pay or sick leave. As for the laser tag, employers should remember that any individual activity is still part of the larger “program” and should choose their recreational activities wisely.
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