Reimbursement for remote work expenses due to Covid
Q: When California’s Safer at Home Order took effect in March 2020, I and my co-workers were instructed to work from home. Since then, I have had to buy a new laptop (something basic), a new printer, ink cartridges, reams of copy paper, envelopes, scotch tape, and staples– all of which I need to do my work. I have also had to get an internet connection in order to access company databases and participate in virtual team meetings (I did not have internet prior to this, my unlimited cellphone data was enough for me). My electricity bill has also gone up. I have had to buy a new ergonomic chair (the cheapest I can find!). I use my personal cellphone several times per day for work-related calls. Are any of these expenses reimbursable by my employer?
A: Under California law, an employer shall “indemnify [its] employee for all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence of the discharge of [their] duties, or . . . obedience to the directions of the employer.” The term “necessary expenditures or losses” includes “all reasonable costs” that the employee incurred in order to perform their work.
Prior to the pandemic, some of the more common reimbursable expenses included: transportation, mileage, parking, and other travel expenses; supplies, tools, materials, or equipment; uniforms; and cell phone use related to work.
What is considered “necessary and reasonable” will depend on several factors, including the employee’s job duties, what the employer expects the employee to do while working remotely, and the actual costs incurred by the employee that they would not have incurred if they worked at the employer’s premises.
For example: Prior to the remote work, the employee had a 10 year-old desktop PC without a camera and a microphone that was sufficient for the employee’s own needs. But with remote work, the employee is now asked to log into the employer’s databases, install new security software and other work-related applications, and participate in Zoom meetings. Under this scenario, an expenditure for a laptop would be necessary.
The same analysis applies to the new printer, ink cartridges for the new printer, reams of copy paper, envelopes, scotch tape, staples, and (probably) the ergonomic chair. If these devices and equipment are needed for you to be able to do your job, and that you would not be purchasing them otherwise if not for work, then these items are arguably “necessary” under the circumstances, and should be reimbursable to you as business expenses.
It is noted that you generally bought items that were “basic” and “cheap” which goes to show that not only were your purchases necessary, they were also “reasonable.” The employer may argue, for example, that though a laptop is necessary for work, paying $2,000 for one may be unreasonable. However, simply because an expense is “unreasonable” doesn’t mean it’s not necessary. The reimbursement may likely be reduced, however.
Does the employer have to reimburse an employee for work-related use of a personal cell phone even if the employee did not incur an extra expense because of this use? Yes, reimbursement is always required. Whether the employees have cell phone plans with unlimited minutes or limited minutes, the reimbursement owed is a reasonable percentage of their cell phone bills. To prove employer liability for reimbursement, the employees need only show that they were required to use their personal cell phones to make work-related calls.
What about expenses that an employee would incur anyway whether they work remotely or not, such as an electric bill or an internet connection? If the employee’s electric bill increased due to the work from home, then technically, a reasonable percentage of this bill should be paid for by the employer. If the employee had to subscribe to an internet connection that they would not otherwise do if not for remote work, then the expense may be deemed necessary to discharge one’s work duties.
A note of caution to employees: if the employer paid for the equipment, it will become employer property. Therefore, if the employee quits, they may be asked to return all equipment/devices that the employer had paid for.
The Law Offices of C. Joe Sayas, Jr. welcomes inquiries about this topic. All inquiries are confidential and at no-cost. You can contact the office at (818) 291-0088 or visit www.joesayaslaw.com. [For more than 25 years, C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. successfully recovered wages and other monetary damages for thousands of employees and consumers. He was named Top Labor & Employment Attorney in California by the Daily Journal, consistently selected as Super Lawyer by the Los Angeles Magazine, and is a past Presidential Awardee for Outstanding Filipino Overseas.]