As a result of COVID-19, many of my employees have been reluctant to come into the office to do their jobs. In an effort to retain my employees, I have allowed employees to work from home if they felt uncomfortable coming into the office. Recently, several of the employees who chose to work from home have asked me to reimburse them for things such as internet and cell phone costs. Since these employees chose to work from home, do I need to reimburse them for these types of expenses?
Several years ago, a California appellate court heard a case where the employee was seeking reimbursement for cell phone charges, even though the employee had a pre-existing unlimited cell phone plan. (See Cochran v. Schwan’s Home Service, Inc., 228 Cal. App. 4th 1137 (2014)).
In that case, the court ruled in favor of the employee and ruled that the employer was required to reimburse the employee some percentage of the cell phone charges.
The key difference in that case, however, was that the employer required the employee to use his personal cell phone. In the situation you described, the employees chose to work from home, and as a result, they arguably chose to incur those costs by working from home.
If you had required your employees to work from home, there is a good chance you would have had to reimburse them for their expenses. In that you merely allowed them to work from home, it is less likely that a court would require you to reimburse them for those costs.
Nevertheless, since this specific issue has not yet been addressed by an appellate court in California, we recommend you consult with legal counsel before denying the reimbursement to your employees.
Although you may be legally entitled to deny the reimbursement, it may simply be in your company’s best interest to give your employees a little latitude in this area.
Column based on questions asked by callers on the Labor Law Helpline, a service to California Chamber of Commerce preferred and executive members. For expert explanations of labor laws and Cal/OSHA regulations, not legal counsel for specific situations, call (800) 348-2262 or submit your question at www.hrcalifornia.com.