“Are employers required to reimburse internet expenses for home-based employees?”

Question: Dear Alan: I do all my work from home. This requires that a great part of my communications with my customers, my coworkers and my employer have to be over the internet.

Do I have a right to be reimbursed by my employer for my monthly internet expenses?

Liselle
Ipswich, Massachusetts

Answer: Dear Liselle: Your question is very common, as more and more people engage in home-based work, often called “telecommuting,” and use a variety of technologies to do so. People who use their cell phones for work are in the same “boat” as you are. Here’s my answer:

a. There is no federal law that requires employers to reimburse their employees for employment-related expenses, and few state laws do so, either. As a nation, we have not yet found it sufficiently important to require reimbursement as a matter of law. Instead, whether work-related expenses must be reimbursed by employers is a matter of state law. Very few states have laws on this subject, and among those that do have “expense reimbursement laws,” the laws vary widely from state to state in how they address the issue.

b. California is in the forefront of states mandating that employers reimburse employees for work-related expenses. Over the last few years, California has led the way in efforts to gain reimbursement for employees of many different work-related expenses. The law in California now requires that workers in that state be reimbursed for “all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by an employee in direct consequence of the discharge of his or her duties, or of his or her obedience to the directions of the employer.”

As written, California’s “right of reimbursement” is as broad as it could be because it does not list one, two or three items that must be reimbursed, but rather takes a “conceptual approach,” because it uses the concept of “all necessary expenditures” to describe what must be reimbursed.

c. Your state – Massachusetts – takes a much more limited approach to employer-mandated reimbursements. The more common approach among states has been to require reimbursement for small number of specified work-related items, and the progress in this regard has come not from state legislatures, but instead from state regulators.

For example, Massachusetts labor regulations require reimbursement to employees of “all transportation expenses” when the employer requires the employee to travel during the work day. In addition, Massachusetts regulations require most employers to reimburse employees’ costs for dry-cleaning of required workplace uniforms. Aside from these two expense categories, Massachusetts law leaves questions of work-related expenses to company policies and practices.

d. Employees seeking rights to reimbursement of work-related expenses need to look first and foremost to their employer’s policies in Employee Handbooks under the title “Expense Reimbursement” or similar words. While company policies are not contractual in nature, they are commonly referred to for guidance on what is required of employees, and what is deserved by employees.

Most often found in Employee Handbooks, employee-related company policies will usually describe (i) what expenses are reimbursable, (ii) the maximum amounts that are reimbursable, (iii) what procedures need to be used to get reimbursement, and (iv) the deadlines involved. If no such policy can be found, whether a reimbursement “policy” or “practice” exists should be addressed to either one’s Manager, or to one’s Human Resources Representative.

If no written expense reimbursement policies exist, ask what the applicable company “practices” are, which are of even lesser authority, but often followed.

e. I should mention that, during hiring, some employees wisely look ahead and ask for certain expense reimbursements that they anticipate may be needed, to be included in their Offer Letter or employment contract, if they have one. Whether at you request or not, if you initially received a right to reimbursement of certain expenses in your Offer Letter or employment contract, you are in luck. It pays to check those documents anyway, just in case they are in them.

If you do, in fact, have such a contractual entitlement to reimbursement, then politely reminding Human Resources of the non-payment oversight should be all you need to do.

f. Where (i) you know of no expense-reimbursement law in your state, (ii) you have no contract entitling you to the reimbursement, (iii) it is not in any Offer Letter or employment contract, and (iv) you cannot find an applicable policy in your Employee Handbook, a respectful request to your Manager is in order. I say this a lot, so please forgive me if you’ve read this on my blog before:

So long as any Request is made (a) with Respect, (b) what is asked for is Reasonable, and (c) it is presented with a good Rationale, there is hardly ever any downside risk to presenting it to your Manager.

In your case, Liselle, if you cannot locate a company policy on internet cost reimbursement, I suggest you do just that.

Unreimbursed work-related expense draining your wallet? Use our Model Memo Requesting Ongoing Expense Reimbursement. It shows you “What to Say and How to Say It”™. Just [click here.] Delivered Instantly By Email to Your Printer.

If for some reason you fear making such a request, then an anonymous letter to senior management suggesting that this is a practice that could lead to (i) hiring difficulties, (ii) poor employee morale, (iii) retention problems, and (iv) even bad publicity. Just do it by mail, without a return address, and keep you identity off the letter, very carefully.

Consider using our Anonymous Letter to Management Requesting Company-wide Expense Reimbursement on Ongoing Basis. It shows you “What to Say and How to Say It.”™ . Just [click here.] Delivered Instantly By Email to Your Printer.

g. The frequency of expense reimbursement issues will surely grow over time, as technological advances enable more and more people to telecommute, and employers save a lot of money by having employees pay business expenses. In their continual efforts to raise profits by lowering costs, employers are finding it all too convenient to pass on to employees costs of telephone use, internet accessibility, electricity, postage, office supplies and the like – all expenses that employers, themselves, would otherwise have to assume.

For this reason, until laws are enacted like those in California, which prohibit employers taking advantage of employees in this way, employees must do all they can to “navigate and negotiate” to get fair treatment, to their best ability. That is what SkloverWorkingWisdom™ is about.

Liselle, thanks for writing in. Your inquiry gave me an opportunity to share this much-needed info with a lot of people with the exact same question. I hope my answers provide you with the guidance you seek, and that you are successful in seeking them. Best of luck!

My Best,
Al Sklover 

P.S.: Avoid expense-related (and other) problems with our 152-Point Master Checklist of Employment Negotiation Items to help you “remember everything and not forget anything else.” To obtain a copy, just [ click here. ] Delivered by Email – Instantly!

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