For a growing number of office workers, remote work is now part of their long-term reality, whether they like it or not. By late spring, 50% of people who were employed before the pandemic hit were working remotely, according to nationally representative sample of adults surveyed by academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
When employees work from home, it can be a win-win for employers. Companies save money on operating costs and perks, and research has found that workers can be more productive at home. But it can take a stressful toll on employees as boundaries blur and privacy becomes scarce.
Working from home can also come at financial and psychological cost to employees who are suddenly shouldering expenses their company used to cover.
“Employers, they’re silent. The silence implies that the expectation is that we as employees will figure it out at home.”
– Elizabeth Patton, author of “Easy Living: The Rise of The Home Office”
Most people didn’t have a dedicated home office before COVID-19, so they’ve had to cobble one together on their own. More than half of the respondents in one survey of remote workers said their employer did not allow them to bring home any equipment when they went remote; a majority also said they had to personally purchase equipment for themselves.
“I think employers, they’re silent. The silence implies that the expectation is that we as employees will figure it out at home,” said Elizabeth Patton, assistant professor of media and communication studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and author of “Easy Living: The Rise of the Home Office.” “It’s interesting that we fell into this idea that this is normal, that we should take up this cost.”
For some workers, these work expenses are adding up to a lot.
There are real-life hidden financial and psychological costs of remote work.
Proponents of remote work often say, “Well, think of how much you’re saving on your commute!” But for Danelle Clarke, who works in administration at a major utility company in Iowa, going remote resulted in a significant pay cut that outweighed whatever she is saving from no longer driving her short commute.
Clarke acknowledged she is fortunate to be able to work from home during the pandemic, but her company told her the choice to not return to the office would result in a 10% pay cut. Her employer said she’d save money by not buying as much gas and by putting less “wear and tear” on her car.
“I personally don’t think you need to take a pay cut to work from home. I’m just as productive as I am in the office, if not more so,” Clarke said. “I did not get any extra equipment. I was provided a laptop and a monitor, but no sort of desk or workstation.”
Clarke’s dining room table is now her desk, and she uses her personal phone and Wi-Fi for work. When she asked her employer for help covering the cost of a printer so she could print out invoices and timesheets, her request was denied.
“If you need a printer, should you really be working from home?” Clarke said her company asked.
Adjusted salaries like Clarke’s may become the norm for some remote workers. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said many employees are welcome to work remotely permanently, but those who move to areas with costs of living lower than the San Francisco Bay Area may face a pay cut starting in January.
“It’s embarrassing to call into work during the middle of your workday to say you cannot complete the shift because the internet went down.”
– Tracy, an IT professional
In an office, an employer is responsible for maintaining a temperature-appropriate environment and for providing technology and equipment that does not fail. When the office is home, employees take on that responsibility.
Patton used herself as an example: “I have to pay for electricity, I have to pay for water, heat, air conditioning. These are things that happen at the office that we expect in terms of a comfortable environment. If we’re shouldering those costs, these are hidden costs … We’re kind of trapped [with the idea of] ‘Well, we’re already here, and we’re already paying for it.’”
Electricity bills were estimated to increase by 15-30% this summer, and more people are dealing with internet outages due to blackouts, storms and surging internet traffic as work and life continue to take place mostly online. This can have consequences for people’s ability to do their work. Tracy, an IT professional working for an essential business based in Arizona (who asked for her last name to be withheld), said that when she was working from home, she needed to use paid vacation days because of an internet outage.
“I took one and a half days of [paid time off] due to internet going down,” Tracy told HuffPost. “It’s embarrassing to call into work during the middle of your workday to say you cannot complete the shift because the internet went down.”
Can you make your company pay for some of these new expenses? It depends.
Bosses can be resistant to investing in their employees when the trend is that employees no longer stay with companies until retirement, Patton said.
“When they purchase office equipment for an office, the idea is that we’re the interchangeables, the desk and chair are still there, the computer is still there,” she said.
Some bosses, though, can be legally obligated to pay for work-related remote expenses, depending on the state where you work and how much you earn. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers can’t require employees earning a minimum wage to pay for business-related expenses that would cause their compensation to fall below minimum wage.
Some states like Illinois, Montana, South Dakota, New Hampshire and California require some form of employee reimbursement for work expenses. California, which has one of the strongest labor laws on this, requires employers to reimburse employees who are required to work from home for reasonable and necessary expenses. Donna Ballman, a Florida-based employment lawyer, said a comfy ergonomic chair would probably not quality, but the stuff required to do the job would probably be considered necessary. One lawsuit filed in California resulted in an employer being told to reimburse a percentage of the employee’s cell phone bill because the employee had to make work-related calls on their personal phone.
But before you ask your employer for help with expenses, consider what would be reasonable and what would be a risk.
“I’d caution against overreaching if your employer is reimbursing for home office expenses. Maybe don’t try to bill for afternoon snacks and coffee even if the employer normally provides them for free. I’d err on the side of showing them you are being reasonable so they don’t decide you are trying to take advantage,” Ballman said. “Remember, most employees are still at-will, which means the employer can fire you for any reason or no reason at all, except for illegal reasons like discrimination and whistleblowing.”