This morning, a six-justice majority of the Illinois Supreme Court has reversed the Fourth District of the Appellate Court, holding in The Venture-Newberg-Perini, Stone & Webster v. The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission that temporarily relocating for a distant job did not transform an employee’s commute into part of his or her employment for purposes of eligibility for workers’ compensation.

The claimant in Venture-Newberg was a pipefitter residing in Springfield. Over the two years preceding the accident, the claimant had worked short-term jobs for the plaintiff on four different occasions at three different plants. In March 2006, the plaintiff found itself unable to fill the available positions at a plant in Cordova, Illinois from locally based union workers, and posted the job at other union halls, including the claimant’s hall in Springfield. Claimant bid for and was awarded the position, which involved working 12 hours a day, seven days a week in Cordova – 200 miles from Springfield.

As a result, the claimant arranged for short-term lodging within an hour’s drive of the plant. On the second day of work, the claimant was seriously injured commuting to work when the pickup truck in which he was riding skidded on a patch of ice.

The general rule in workers’ compensation law is that injuries occurring while the employee is commuting to or from work do not arise out of and in the course of employment and are therefore not compensable. While there are limited exceptions, the arbitrator decided that none of them applied, and denied the claimant’s application for workers’ compensation benefits. The Workers’ Compensation Commission reversed, finding that the claimant’s course or method of travel was determined by the demands and exigencies of his job. The Circuit Court reversed the Commission on administrative review. The Appellate Court then reversed the Circuit Court, holding that the claimant qualified as a “traveling employee,” and his injuries were sustained in the course of his employment.

In an opinion by Chief Justice Rita B. Garman, the Court reversed the Appellate Court. A “traveling employee,” the Court wrote, was one “whose duties require[d] them to travel away from their employer’s premises.” Injuries arising from three types of acts by a traveling employee were compensable: (1) acts the employer instructs the employee to perform; (2) acts which the employee has a common law or statutory duty to perform; and (3) acts which the employee might be reasonably expected to perform incident to his or her assigned duties. The claimant argued that the third category applied to his commute from his temporary housing.

The majority disagreed. The claimant was neither a permanent employee of the plaintiff, nor even working for the company on a long-term exclusive basis. Nothing required him to travel out of his union’s territory to accept the job. The claimant was hired to work at the Cordova location, not directed by the employer to travel away from his ordinary work site to another location. The employer didn’t assist the claimant with his housing plans, nor did it reimburse him for travel expenses. For all these reasons, the majority concluded that the claimant was not a “traveling employee.” The majority also pointed to what it perceived as an anomalous result of the claimant’s argument – that employees hired from more distant union halls would be covered by workers’ compensation for their commutes, while employees living nearby would not.

The majority rejected the Appellate Court’s conclusion that the claimant’s lodging was decided by the demands and exigencies of his job as well. His decision to stay close to the work site was a personal one, the majority found. He had not been required to take the job, and was not required by the company to relocate. Nor was there any evidence in the record that the company had required him to be within an hour of the plant at all times, or even suggested it.

Justice Thomas L. Kilbride dissented. The record was conflicting on whether or not the company expected or required the claimant to stay nearby, Justice Kilbride wrote. Therefore, under the manifest weight of the evidence standard, the Commission’s decision should have been upheld. Justice Kilbride pointed out that the plaintiff employer was not located in Cordova – it was based in Wilmington, Illinois. Therefore, “[t]here can be no question” that the claimant “had to travel away from his employer’s premises.” Further, the plaintiff and the plant owner had agreed to hire from outside the local area – union tradesmen who would necessarily be required to temporarily relocate for the job. “By definition” that made the claimant a traveling employee, Justice Kilbride wrote. Since the claimant’s conduct in commuting from his temporary housing to the plant was entirely reasonable, his injuries arose during the course of his employment, making them compensable.