How much was your energy bill this month? Do you want to talk about it? For those who worked outside of their homes before the pandemic, the bump in utility costs over the past few months might have become a financial stress point. To be sure, being able to work from home is a blessing when so many people don’t have the option — a minority of Americans are able to do so full time — but now that we’re approaching the hottest part of the summer, you can’t deny that every time you break down and turn the A/C on, you’re bitterly longing for the days of an ice-cold office where you needed a sweater on standby.
With heat waves and record-breaking temperatures being observed in some regions, being able to work in a cooled, temp-controlled environment isn’t a perk — it’s increasingly becoming an expensive necessity. A study by Arcadia, a tech platform that connects people to clean energy, showed that, among some 10,000 of its users, energy bills are expected to increase by up to 15% in some cities this summer. Other estimates say that in some areas, there may be closer to a 25% increase. But if something is required to do your job, shouldn’t your employer provide it?
It’s a question people seem to be asking more as the nation enters month five of sheltering at home. An unforeseen pandemic may have at first led to people getting by on makeshift workspaces — a TV tray as a desk, for example — but since then, we’ve dug into our own pockets to furnish a more permanent set-up. These might be items people already had at the office, but according to a survey of 856 remote COVID-19 workers by Nulab, 56.7% said their employer didn’t allow them to take anything home from their offices. It also reported that most people did not buy anything in order to work remotely, but it did find that those who made home office purchases spent an average of $194. A plurality of survey respondents (36.8%) said that there was no possibility for reimbursement of WFH-related costs.
WFH set-ups add up
Andrea, 54, lives in Pennsylvania and works in banking. She spent around $773 office supplies, including a desk and a chair. She says that maybe she could get her chair reimbursed.
Hannah, 27, works in tech in Boston. Her costs haven’t been limited to new office furniture. “Utilities have increased about $10/month, between A/C (that I got for free) and increased usage just by virtue of being home,” she says. “I bought a desk and chair for about $190 combined. I'm also buying more groceries than normal, because my office provided lunch once a week and had a kitchen stocked with snacks and coffee.”
Amber, 48, lives in Texas and works in the food and beverage industry. So far her WFH costs have included $25 for ethernet cables, $150 for a chair, and $25 for other office supplies. “The A/C is running all the time, and it’s about $75 a month,” she says. “Ink for the printer is $40 a month. They did give me paper and some other supplies.” She says that her employer does pay her $10 a month for her cell phone, but that’s the only thing that’s been paid for so far.
Theo, 29, works in insurance in Chicago. “I bought a desk ($200), monitor, camera, keyboard, mouse — these four came to about $400,” she says. Her company reimbursed her $200. Emily, 29, who works in the fintech industry in San Francisco, has spent $250 so far on office equipment. Her workplace gives her a $300 WFH budget, but she notes, “My employer is flexible. If I needed more, I’m confident I could expense it.”
In the COVID-19 WFH era, the list of WFH necessities is expanding beyond office furniture. Brittany, 24, works in media in Brooklyn and spent $163 on a new modem and router. Kara, a 27-year-old in Texas who works in the beauty industry, not only purchased a desk and chair due to COVID-19 (totaling $160), she’s also shelling out an extra $30 a month now for upgraded wifi. Kara has not been reimbursed for any of her costs. In 2020, having a reliable internet connection isn’t some newfangled novelty, one could argue that it’s an essential need.
Are employers required to pay for any WFH expenses?
So is there anything legally obligating your boss to pitch in for work-from-home costs, including monthly expenses like the internet? It depends. “This is definitely a time where, as work is shifting, who bears what cost is the question that we're all going to have to answer,” says Julian Burns King, a partner at King & Siegel LLP, a firm that specializes in employment law. “And some states have laws that provide some answers to that question already, whether it's been applied to work-from-home situations or not.”
A California labor law, for example, states that employers need to pay up “for all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence of the discharge of his or her duties.” There’s obviously some room for interpretation in what counts as “necessary expenditures or losses.” But there’s been various applications. One example, according to King, is mileage reimbursement if you have to drive your car for work. One of the most common applications is being reimbursed for personal cell phone use during work.
King says that because of this law, “there's a general consensus” in California at least that personal devices should be reimbursed when used for work. “But there's this other stuff that no one has litigated before,” she says. “Do you have to be reimbursed for part of your home office? Or for your air conditioning, or for your internet?”
States like Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Montana, Iowa, and New Hampshire also have some version of a law on employee reimbursement, but such laws aren’t widespread yet, and the degree of requirement differs by location. “California is definitely one of the most protective,” says King.
Can I be reimbursed for air conditioning? What about food?
King expects a rush of COVID-19-related reimbursements suits to be filed soon, as the months of working-from-home wear on and the cost shouldered by employees grows. When asked whether she could envision things like air conditioning being reimbursed, she says, “I actually can. I think that there's definitely an argument that employers should be reimbursing for things like air conditioning.”
She says of the California labor code law, “The goal is to prevent employers from shifting the cost of doing business onto their employees.” (She notes this is something employers have always been trying to do. “Look at how Lyft and Uber have people use their own cars.”) The ways in which a company can save money, both in the short-term and long-term if they opt for indefinite remote work policies, are pretty obvious — they’d save big on utilities and on rent. “It feels out there, because it’s a new application,” King says, “but I think when you actually look at this statute and what it was intended to do, it pretty clearly does apply to things like this.”
King also believes there’s a good case for internet reimbursement, at least if your state has a law like California’s. “Because, again, it’s reasonably necessary to do your job,” she says. According to a 2020 study conducted by BroadbandNow, the number of Americans who lack a broadband internet connection may be over 42 million.
It’s less clear when it comes to the free snacks or lunches your office used to provide. “I would say that might be an outer limit,” says King. Pizza Fridays might have boosted morale a bit, but courts probably wouldn’t rule that it was reasonably necessary to do your job.
What happens if work-from-home becomes optional?
There’s also the question of how workplaces will treat remote working after the worst of the pandemic has passed. With COVID-19 cases still rising around the country, there’s a moral imperative to institute a work-from-home policy right now. But what about later? If a workplace no longer requires employees to work from home but adopts an optional remote work policy, will employers still have an obligation to reimburse WFH expenses?
“That’s gonna be a tricky one,” says King. “If it's not necessary and if you're allowed to work in an office, they may not be required to reimburse you.” But she gives the example of an employer that only has half of its workers come into the office, as part of COVID-19 safety precautions. In that case, the half that are choosing to continue working remotely might still have a case for being reimbursed.
Working from home may be a long-term reality for many office workers. Several major tech companies, including Google and Facebook, have extended their WFH policy into 2021. Twitter announced it would allow indefinite WFH months ago. Google, Facebook, Twitter, among other tech companies, do offer a fairly generous $1,000 stipend for WFH equipment. But big companies have yet to announce monthly allowances or reimbursement of recurring bills that are higher because of having to work from home. Meanwhile, Facebook is already eyeing employees who relocate to more affordable regions in the age of remote working. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that the company would be looking into cost-of-living salary adjustments for these workers.
In Switzerland, the Federal Supreme Court ruled last year that an employer had to pay a portion of an employee’s rent if they were required to work from home and the employer was saving money from it. According to the BBC, the ruling generally hasn’t applied during COVID-19 yet because employers haven’t actually saved on office rent — offices are just sitting empty — but it gives some insight into what might happen if more companies decide to make WFH permanent, and how far the obligation of reimbursement could go.
The new normal
“The costs [of doing work] aren’t going away,” King says. “It’s just a question of who’s paying for them.” And while, in office spaces, it was a given that it would be your employer covering these costs, the fact that there hasn’t been more movement and consensus on WFH expenses feels pretty convenient for employers.
For King, it’s in part about setting a precedence, a standard, in a moment when so much about work is shifting. “I think if this is the new normal, we don't want companies to just take all the profits still and not pay anything for the costs that they’re imposing on everyone,” she says. She would like to see more states enacting labor codes setting some obligation for employers, and for courts to rule that reimbursement is necessary.
But a broader, more COVID-19-specific legal obligation will take time. “For court decisions, the timeframe is probably at least a year,” says King. “Just because the courts move slowly and they're not really working right now for civil matters. In terms of legislature, I think this is something legislators can get on and get new laws passed. There’s nothing stopping them from doing it.”
King expects “a decent amount” of cases to come her way related to WFH expense issues. “Employers that aren't giving stipends are opening themselves up to litigation on this issue,” she says. “A savvy employer, I think, would just make employees happy and give them a stipend now.”