Richard B. Johnson
According to section 21 of the BC Employment Standards Act (the “Act”), an employer must not foist business expenses on the employees, or in other words, require employees to pay business-related costs.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most remote-work arrangements were either part of the terms of employment at a given company, or voluntary and short-term (for example, companies giving workers the option to work from home on certain days of the week). In March of 2020, many employers and employees suddenly found themselves in a new grey area when it came to working from home. There is not a lot of existing verbiage in the Act to cover government-mandated long-term remote work arrangements.
Employers need to be cognizant of the existing standards to avoid unintentionally foisting business expenses on their employees during COVID work-from-home mandates.
What Work-From-Home Expenses Should Employers Cover?
Imagine that you’re at work in your company’s office, typing up a report. Are you using your own laptop, or a company computer? Do you own your chair, and the desk you’re sitting at, or is it the property of the employer? Who is paying for electricity, internet, and heating? Essentially, any equipment that you need to adequately perform your job that would normally be provided by your employer is eligible for reimbursement when you’re working from home — especially when working from home is not voluntary.
This includes smaller items such as stationery — pens, notebooks, sticky notes, printer paper and ink. For items that an employee already owned prior to beginning remote work, such as a laptop or desk, the employer should still be open to covering maintenance costs (for example, the cost of a new charging cable or battery). This is also true if an employee technically owned an item but their home item was not adequate to allow them to work long-term. For example, if an employee had a desk chair that was adequate for occasional use at home, but might cause back pain when used for an extended period, it would be well within the employee’s rights to ask their employer to foot the bill for an ergonomic desk chair.
It’s important to keep in mind that there are very few work-related expenses that an employee, especially one who normally works in a physical office, would be strictly expected to cover. Things that would clearly not fall under the category of work expenses would include a coffee mug, water bottle, etc.. Things that an employee chooses to bring, for their own comfort or chosen use, but that aren’t required to perform the job.
In the case of items that are not being used 100 percent for work, such as a personal phone or a laptop, an employer can still cover a percentage of the item’s value equal to roughly the percentage of time that the item is being used for work. For example, if an employee uses their phone 80 percent of the time for personal activities and 20 percent of the time for work, the employer could cover 20 percent of the employee’s monthly phone bill.
These kinds of calculations can start to get complicated, so many employers find it easier to simply provide dedicated work equipment for their employees. Of course, if you’re going to provide your employer with a laptop exclusively for work, it’s in your best interest to be able to track, to some degree, how that laptop is being used.
How Can Employers Cover Expenses?
Employers have a few different options when it comes to covering their employees’ work from home business expenses. Which you decide to use will depend on what works best for your business model and for your employees. As with everything to do with pandemic working arrangements, we encourage open dialogue between employers and employees so everyone understands the issues at stake, and the reasoning behind decisions about what expenses are covered, and how.
Paying for Expenses Directly
The first, and probably simplest way that employers can cover their employees’ remote work expenses is to simply pay for the expenses upfront. This payment could come in the form of a monthly expense allowance. Or employers could pay employees a fixed-amount stipend monthly, bimonthly, or quarterly. Another option is to roll the stipend into an employee’s paycheque.
Providing Necessary Equipment
In lieu of paying for employers to buy or use their own equipment, employers can provide employees with the equipment they need to do their job. This might include industry-specific equipment and tools, but it can also be as simple as providing employees with a dedicated work laptop and phone.
In general, this provision of equipment still won’t cover expenses related to the use of a space (internet, heating and electricity bills, for example), so this may not be adequate in every scenario.
Providing a Statement of Expenses for Tax Purposes
In some cases, an employee might prefer to claim their work from home expenses on their own income taxes. Employers can provide a statement to vouch for the expenses that an employee is claiming for the time spent working at home. Since there are limits on the amounts that can be claimed by a single employee, this solution is best used in certain, limited circumstances.
For COVID-specific work from home expenses, the Canadian government has provided form T777, for which employers can provide a copy of form T2200 to confirm the amount that the employee paid out of pocket for work-related expenses.
Covering Expenses on an Ongoing Basis
As vaccinations continue and more employees return to in-person work, if your employer is allowing you to voluntarily work from home, they should still provide you with the equipment you need to do so. However, in a voluntary arrangement, it’s reasonable for an employee to cover more of their own expenses, since they are making the choice to work from home. Some employees may need to continue working from home for longer than others for various reasons. If an employee has a legitimate reason that they cannot return to the office even after remote work mandates are lifted, employers should be open to continuing to cover certain expenses.
Under the Act, there is a complaint mechanism with options available for filing on the BC Employment Standards website, which has an online portal where workers can file a complaint related to remote work conditions. However, there is a six month window to file an Employment Standards complaint.