When – and Where – Does the Workday Begin?

March 27th, 2007 by

Irene Muszynski is a teacher in Buffalo NY’s Grover Cleveland School. Last October, she parked her car on a side street a half block from the school – the school’s small lot cannot accommodate all the teachers. As she reached into the back seat of her car to retrieve some materials, Terrance Johnson, a 17 year old student at the school, clobbered her with a board and continued to hit her as she fled up the street. He finally left her lying on the ground, bleeding, and drove off in her car.
Muszynski filed a workers comp claim, which came before Judge Arthur Cooper. As Peter Simon writes in the Buffalo News, the judge ruled against Musznyski. Judge Cooper determined the following:
– “The claimant parked in a public street in an area over which the employer had no control.”
– “The claimant was going to work when the assault occurred and this trip is considered commuting and not considered part of the employment.”
– The attack was not work-related because there is no evidence that Johnson assaulted her because she is a teacher.
While there is often a lot of ambiguity when “public” thoroughfares are involved in determining compensability, I think the judge got most of this decision wrong. If Muszynski had been assaulted in the school’s small parking lot, she would have had a compensable claim. She would have been “at work.” The judge fails to note that the parking lot was not an option for the teacher – the lot was already filled. So it is no great stretch to assume that the parameters of coverage extend beyond the inaccessible lot, down the public street to the spot where Muszynski actually parked. I would argue that she was “at work” as soon as she stopped the engine of her car.
The judge is correct, however, in stating that the attack was not related to her work as a teacher. Johnson was a student and Muszynski was a teacher, but the assault was not based upon these specific roles. Johnson acted as a thug, not as a student, and Muszynski was a random victim, not someone functioning as a teacher. As a result, she is unlikely to have access to the provision in the Buffalo teachers’s contract that makes a teacher injured in a “school-related” assault eligible for full pay for up to five years, as long as the teacher is medically unable to work.
Returning to the Classroom
I suspect that Muszynski may prevail on appeal. The judge’s narrow reading of commuting is certainly subject to question. But the bottom line here is getting a dedicated teacher back into the classroom. Muszynski is currently at home, burning up her sick leave. She says she is still afraid. “I’m a little nervous and apprehensive. You’re just so concerned that something else will happen. I’m always going to be looking over my shoulder.”
Physically, Muszynski appears ready to return to work. Here’s a suggestion that won’t cost the school administration a dime, yet will help speed Muszynski’s return to to the classroom. Give her an assigned space in the little parking lot attached to the school. The union would probably find this small accommodation acceptable. And it would take away at least some of the anxiety in coming back to work.
Right now the situation is not doing anyone any good: Muszynski cannot teach and the schools are down one teacher. Instead of getting lost in the fog of compensability, let’s focus on the essentials and get Muszynski back to work.