In the new hybrid world, should employers be reimbursing home-office expenses?

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A California software engineer recently sued Amazon for refusing to pay his heat and internet bills while he worked remotely from home during the pandemic.

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A judge dismissed the lawsuit this month, but the filing left employers asking just who is responsible for paying the extra costs that workers pay while splitting their work time between home and office.

After all, nearly 70% of U.S. office workers now embrace a hybrid work schedule or work completely from home, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

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For clarity, we asked several employment experts for their take on the question, “Who should pay for home office equipment?”

Some 62% of 316,000 human resource managers surveyed this month by SHRM reported their companies paid for work-related equipment used in workers’ homes, shelling out $891 on average.

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Employers usually paid for employees’ laptops, monitors, chairs and keyboards for home offices.

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But questions remain over bills for such items as cellphones, home heating and cooling, internet use and printers — items that may straddle work and personal life. What is reimbursable and what is not often depend on the employee’s job and state.

“It’s a bit of a slippery slope because each state is different,” said Jim Link, SHRM chief human resources officer.

In Minnesota, two laws address the question but they are a bit limited, said Randi Winter, a partner with the Spencer Fane law firm.

One statute requires employers to reimburse a departing worker in a timely fashion but only for work-related equipment that is never used for personal use.

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Another statute says employers can’t force staff to foot the bill for work equipment if doing so would push their pay below the minimum wage.

Beyond that, companies must figure out their own best practice.

Winter highly recommends developing equipment and expense policies ahead of time. He regularly fields phone calls from employers about what to do. “Put everything in writing,” he says.

Some employers give workers stipends to cover select home office expenses.

The law firm Spencer Fane in Minneapolis helps its workers with cellphone bills.

Likewise, candy maker Maud Borup gives its salaried employees a $100 monthly cellphone stipend. The strong positive reaction exceeded our expectations, said spokeswoman Karen Edwards.

In Minneapolis, ad agency Carmichael Lynch provides remote workers with computers, video conferencing packages and IT support and gives new hires a $200 stipend to customize home offices.

“During these past two years, home and work life have so blurred. Part of our responsibility is to show up for our people and extend some balance into their world,” said Carmichael Lynch CEO Marcus Fischer, who splits his time between the Minneapolis office and his home. “We have to figure this 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 require staff to work from home, they won’t pay for home office internet, cellphones or furniture.

Winter said some employers feel remote workers save on gas and other commuting costs by not coming into the office, so should not complain about incurring some expenses that straddle the line between home and office.

Before crafting that sentiment into a policy, Winter suggests taking a gander at the state of Minnesota’s own remote-work policy. It clearly states the state will reimburse expenses only if preapproved. And it won’t cover operating costs for remote work locations beyond providing a computer.

Even so, many nongovernment employers take a practical approach to the whole hybrid home office question and easily reimburse workers for a portion of home internet, “particularly if the employee was required to upgrade their service to work from home” said Ballard Spahr employment law partner Jay Zweig.

He warned that whatever your company plans to do, create policies that are consistent across all locations, states and staffs.

“An employer should make sure that it treats employees consistently in work-from-home expense reimbursements to avoid discrimination claims,” Zweig said. A proactive written policy “will save an employer a great deal 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, D.C., mandate that employers provide or reimburse workers for all necessary business-related equipment to do their jobs.

Still, the devil is in the details. Some states only require companies to partly reimburse workers — for the portion of time the equipment is deployed for work purposes.

“It can be a little complex depending on the state,” Lee said. “Employers have to make sure they’re developing their policies so individuals don’t just start buying stuff without company approval. Employers have some leeway to say, ‘That is not an expense that you would have normally incurred in the office, so that is not something you need to work at home.'”

No matter how thorough your policy, expect wrinkles, Lee said.

Employees with disabilities are within their right to ask their workplaces to make reasonable accommodations when it comes 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 that they need a standing desk because they have back pain, then it becomes a reasonable accommodation situation. And then, it is more likely than not that the employer will probably pay for that equipment,” Lee said.

Freelance writer Kevyn Burger contributed to this article.



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