Remote workers sue employers over work-from-home expenses

In the more than two years since the pandemic shut down many offices, white-collar workers across the country have been forced to set up offices in cluttered kitchens and cramped bedrooms, reinventing the way people work. , day after day, on the fly.

New social codes have developed between employees and employers, perhaps irrevocably changing the nature of work.

Another consequence of the massive relocation of office workers: an increase in employee lawsuits demanding reimbursement for expenses incurred while working from home during the pandemic.

“We have tons of them in the pipeline,” said Jacob Whitehead, an attorney who has filed about 20 class action lawsuits for business expenses demanded by employees.

Household expenses such as phone and internet costs, extra energy to heat or cool a home, and office supplies can add up to $50 to $200 a month per employee, according to more than a dozen lawsuits reviewed by The Times.

If expenses were incurred for the duration of the pandemic, this could amount to up to $5,000 for each worker. Some lawsuits also demand payment for potential earnings that employees might have earned had they rented out their home office instead of using it for work.

“It’s one of those pandemic issues that came up very suddenly,” said Craig Ackermann, a Los Angeles attorney who has filed about 25 lawsuits to recover unreimbursed business expenses from employers. About half of those lawsuits have been settled, he said.

One of Whitehead’s clients, Troy Seppala, a former refinance sales trainer, was among several employees at Better Mortgage Corp. who filed a lawsuit in March 2022 against the mortgage company.

In the lawsuit, he claimed that after being ordered to work from home, from March 2020, he had to pay the bill for work expenses, including his internet use, extra electricity and the use of his personal laptop and cell phone, at a total cost of “several thousand dollars”.

Seppala was fired from Better Mortgage in December 2021, in a massive dismissal that was executed in a Zoom meeting, and still looking for work. Better Mortgage did not respond to emails seeking comment on the case.

The company had previously paid for snacks and lunch each day for employees who worked in the office – benefits that were eliminated when Seppala and other staff were ordered to work from home.

The tech industry, including companies large and small that offer free meals, dry cleaning and other services meant to improve the lives of employees, has come under heavy criticism from workers after removed these benefits during the pandemic. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, was pushed back by employees last month after the digital giant cut free services such as laundry and dry cleaning and changed the schedule for its free dinner service.

Seppala said it’s already hard to make ends meet in the high-priced Bay Area. Once he found out he had to pay for his daily lunch plus other office expenses, money started to get tight.

“As soon as we started working from home, I realized how much day-to-day money I really had because of how much I spent paying for this stuff,” he said. .

Other lawsuits, many of which are still pending in court, have targeted commercial giants such as Wells Fargo Bank, Liberty Mutual Insurance, Visa, Oracle and Bank of America.

Visa declined to comment on the lawsuit. Representatives for Bank of America, Liberty Mutual and Oracle did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The companies that are being sued for not reimbursing their employees for business expenses have, according to Ackermann, argued in court that the pandemic caught them off guard and that they were unprepared to respond.

“They say it’s a century-long pandemic, what do you expect?” he said. “Yet the law is the law. Do you think the employee should bear the cost?”

Wells Fargo Bank treasury associate Tiffany Calderon filed a lawsuit in August, claiming her bosses have failed to reimburse her and other employees for various business expenses since they were had sent to work from home in March 2020. , telephone, personal computer, office equipment (printers, scanners, etc.), office supplies, utility bills and/or fair value of space used as a home office” , according to the lawsuit.

His attorney, Joshua Haffner, said the expenses cost Calderon between $100 and $200 a month.

“The cost should not be passed on to employees,” he said. “It benefits the business.”

In a statement, Wells Fargo said the bank has provided its employees “guidance on how to seek reimbursement for reasonable and necessary expenses incurred while conducting Wells Fargo business from home, such as office supplies and mobile phone and Internet services, and our policy complies with California law.”

The lawsuits highlight one of the most dramatic changes the pandemic has brought to the business world: the widespread shift of employees from business offices to home offices to help minimize the spread of the coronavirus.

In a survey of nearly 6,000 workers by the Pew Research Center71% of those employees who could work from home worked from home all or most of the time in fall 2020. In contrast, 23% of those workers said they telecommuted frequently before the coronavirus outbreak. coronavirus.

Many employees may be conflicted about suing their employer for work-from-home expenses because, despite the added cost, working from home offers many benefits, such as more flexible hours and relief from commuting. .

The legal disputes have arisen because very few employers have adopted clear policies on reimbursing workers for expenses related to working from home, according to academics and legal experts.

Federal law does not require companies to pay for expenses incurred by employees working from home, but many states, including California, passed laws to address the topic long before the pandemic hit. The California labor commissioner’s office has yet to issue COVID-specific expense reimbursement guidelines.

The state labor code is tilted to favor workers. The law requires employers to compensate workers for “all necessary expenses or losses incurred by the employee as a direct result of the performance of his or her duties”. The law describes such expenses as “all reasonable costs, including, but not limited to, attorneys’ fees incurred by the employee enforcing the rights granted by this section.”

Once workers were sent home en masse, employers were much more likely to pay for home office equipment, such as computers, according to a survey of 10,000 Americans led by the economics professor of Stanford, Nicholas Bloom. But less than 10% of employers were reimbursing workers for costs such as new furniture or internet fees, he said.

“For equipment such as laptops, webcams, microphones and a desk, it’s reasonable for an employer to pay for it,” Bloom said. “For more general costs such as renovating a home office, improving broadband or lunch, this is less common and would be on a case-by-case basis.”

Some companies have adopted policies to deal with the cost of new normal work. At the start of the pandemic, several technology companies, including Google and Shopify, announced plans to reimburse employees up to $1,000 for work-from-home equipment.

Google recently announced that it was ending its voluntary work-from-home period in the Bay Area and several other locations. The company said it expects most employees to come into the office three days a week and have two days of remote work.

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Maria D. Ervin