In the new hybrid world, should employers reimburse telecommuting costs?
A California software engineer recently sued Amazon for refusing to pay his heating and internet bills while working remotely from home during the pandemic.
A judge dismissed the lawsuit this month, but the filing left employers asking who is responsible for paying the extra costs workers incur while splitting their work time between home and the office.
After all, nearly 70% of US office workers are now adopting a hybrid work schedule or working entirely from home, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
For clarity, we asked several employment experts for their views on the question, “Who should pay for home office equipment?”
Some 62% of 316,000 human resources managers surveyed this month by SHRM said their companies had paid for work-related equipment used in workers’ houses, paying $891 on average.
Employers typically paid for employee laptops, monitors, chairs, and keyboards for home offices.
But questions remain about bills for items such as mobile phones, home heating and cooling, internet use and printers – items that can straddle work and personal life. What is reimbursable and what is not often depends on the job and the status of the employee.
“It’s a bit of a slippery slope because every state is different,” said Jim Link, SHRM’s director of human resources.
In Minnesota, two laws address the issue but they’re a bit limited, said Randi Winter, a partner at law firm Spencer Fane.
A law requires employers to reimburse a departing worker in a timely manner, but only for work-related equipment that is never used for personal purposes.
another law says employers cannot force staff to pay the bill for work equipment if doing so would put their wages below minimum wage.
Beyond that, companies need to determine their own best practices.
Winter strongly recommends developing equipment and expense policies in advance. He regularly answers phone calls from employers about what to do. “Put everything in writing,” he said.
Some employers pay workers allowances to cover certain home office expenses.
Law firm Spencer Fane in Minneapolis helps its employees pay their cell phone bills.
Similarly, candy maker Maud Borup pays its salaried employees a monthly allowance of $100 for their cell phones. The strong positive reaction exceeded our expectations, spokeswoman Karen Edwards said.
In Minneapolis, ad agency Carmichael Lynch is providing remote workers with computers, video conferencing packages and IT support and offering new hires a $200 stipend to customize home offices.
“Over the past couple of years, life at home and at work has become so blurred. Part of our responsibility is to show up for our employees and strike some balance in their world,” said the Carmichael Lynch CEO Marcus Fischer, who splits his time between the Minneapolis office and his home. “We have to figure that out as we go. As one of our clients said, ‘This is the first pandemic for all of us.’ “
Other companies draw a much harder line, explicitly stating that since they don’t need staff to work from home, they won’t pay for internet, cell phones, or home office furniture.
Winter said some employers feel remote workers save on gas and other travel costs by not coming to the office, so they shouldn’t complain about incurring expenses that straddle the line between home and office.
Before turning that sentiment into politics, Winter suggests taking a look at the state of Minnesota’s own remote work policy. It clearly states that the state will reimburse expenses only if approved in advance. And it won’t cover the costs of operating remote workplaces beyond providing a computer.
Even so, many non-government employers are taking a hands-on approach to the whole hybrid home office issue and easily reimbursing workers for some home internet, “particularly if the employee needed to upgrade its service to work from home,” said Ballard Spahr Labor Law Partner. Jay Zweig.
He cautioned that whatever your company plans to do, create consistent policies across all sites, states and teams.
“An employer must ensure that it treats employees consistently in work-from-home expense reimbursements to avoid discrimination claims,” Zweig said. A proactive written policy will “save the employer a lot of time and potential morale issues”.
Review new policies with legal experts in each state to ensure compliance with state laws.
Yvette Lee, one of SHRM’s advisers, noted that some states are known to have employee-friendly laws. For example, Iowa, Illinois, California, Massachusetts, Montana, New York, and Washington, DC, require employers to provide or reimburse workers for all equipment the company needs to do their jobs.
However, the devil is in the details. Some states only require companies to partially reimburse workers — for the portion of time the equipment is deployed for work purposes.
“It can be a bit complex depending on the state,” Lee said. “Employers need to make sure they design their policies so that individuals don’t just start buying things without company approval. Employers have some leeway to say, ‘This is not not an expense you would normally incur at the office, so that’s not something you need to work from home.'”
No matter how strict your policy, expect wrinkles, Lee said.
Employees with disabilities have the right to ask their workplace to make reasonable accommodations to workstations and office equipment, she said.
“There will be exceptions to the rule because if an employee were to go to an employer and say they need a standing desk because they have back pain, then that becomes a reasonable accommodation situation. And then more likely than not the employer will probably pay for that equipment,” Lee said.
Freelance writer Kevyn Burger contributed to this article.