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Should Your Employer Be Reimbursing You for These Home Office Expenses?

Dayana Yochim  |  November 12, 2020

With the shift to remote work, pandemic-related work from home expenses are on the rise. Here's how to ask your boss to be reimbursed.

So much about work has changed during the pandemic, including the stigma of taking a WFH (work from home) day. Just 17% of employees worked remotely before COVID-19. Now 83% of us ply our trade from the kitchen table, couch, basement half-bath or wherever we can find space, silence and an appropriate Zoom background. But that home office setup doesn’t come cheap. There’s internet connectivity, equipment and whatever else is required to perform our job duties. So, whose responsibility is it to pick up the tab for these work from home expenses?

What we need to work from home

When the U.S. went under lockdown in March, companies that didn’t have teleworking policies in place before the pandemic were forced to figure out what operational expenses they would cover. Legally, each state has employment laws that pertain to expense reimbursements. And there are federal regulations that fall under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  

A new survey from finance software company AppZen gives us insight into how workplace reimbursement policies have evolved. 

According to AppZen, 51% of employers with at least 250 workers have updated their expense policies during the pandemic. The biggest changes are the types of expenses allowed. The classic travel and entertainment budget line item has dwindled to practically nothing. Replacing meals and cabs are expensable home office-related costs, including: 

  • Internet: Nearly half of companies (46%) reimburse employees for internet connectivity. Pre-COVID, 40% of businesses let employees submit this expense.
  • Additional equipment: A second computer screen or monitor is a reimbursable expense now at 41% of businesses versus 37% before WFH orders were given.
  • Comfortable working chair or desk: If perching on a stepstool at the kitchen counter is killing your back, 30% of companies surveyed will pick up the tab, which is roughly the same number (29%) that were willing to invest in a comfy work setup before COVID. 
  • Utilities: 19% of employers (versus 18% before the pandemic) reimburse employees who work from home for electricity and gas bills.
  • Lunches/food delivery: Sorry, worker bees. Staying up late to work on a project no longer qualifies you for pizza on the boss. This is the one expense that is reimbursed at a lower rate post-pandemic. Before COVID, 18% of companies let you expense meals. Now just 15% allow it.
  • Childcare: Not surprisingly, the ability to submit an expense report for childcare-related costs was the least-covered expense. Just 11% of companies cover it — the same percentage of companies as before COVID.

Is it enough?

Depends on who you ask. Men said they were more satisfied than women with home office-related reimbursements: 80% of male survey respondents said the amount they were able to expense was fair, versus 59% of women.

AppZen suggests that the satisfaction difference may be due to unequal division of domestic labor while working from home. An Oxfam survey found that the amount of household work for women during COVID has increased by one to five hours… a day. (See more on the real cost of COVID-19 for women.)

The lack of childcare-related reimbursements may also be a factor. 70% of employees felt they weren’t being fairly compensated for new types of work-from-home expenses like childcare. 

Despite their willingness to cover all sorts of home-work expenses, 26% of employees said they felt uncomfortable submitting receipts for reimbursements at all. 

Don’t leave money on the table

It may feel awkward to ask your employer to pay for data overages on your cell phone or an ergonomic mouse pad. But it’s financially worthwhile, especially since we don’t know how long our work-from-home orders will be in place. Remember: It’s not your job to subsidize your company to keep doing your job. 

Take advantage of the benefits: 75% of employees submitted work from home expenses during the pandemic. That’s not too different from pre-COVID when 69% of workers said they asked their boss to reimburse them for expenses. You’d expect that number to be higher, and companies probably did too. Don’t be shy!

Review your company’s policy for updates. Note that 17% of AppZen survey respondents didn’t know whether their employer had updated its expense policy due to COVID. If you’re unsure, ask. Even if there was no update, some of these items may be covered under your company’s regular reimbursement rules. 

Ask for what you need: Your company may not realize that you rely on a certain piece of office equipment or software or hardware to do your job. If you’re spending your own money on supplies, talk to human resources or your supervisor about being able to submit an expense report for must-have items.

Don’t rack up credit card debt paying for work-related needs. C-suite and company executives are more likely to have a company credit card or expense accounts they can use to cover costs, according to AppZen. Lower-paid workers end up spending their own money upfront and waiting to get reimbursed. If you cannot afford to pay out of pocket for an extra expense each month, ask about making different reimbursement arrangements. For example, can you be given a company credit card? Can your employer direct-deposit money to your bank account for monthly expenses before they are due?

Submit a request for additional or retroactive reimbursement: If an amount that your employer will cover is insufficient, make a case for additional money in writing. Similarly, if you were unaware an item was covered or for any reason failed to submit an expense report, put it in writing and request retroactive payment. 

Don’t rely on being reimbursed by the IRS: The home office tax deduction was eliminated in 2018. There are some workarounds, according to nolo.com. But unless the law is changed due to the wave of people forced to work from home this year, don’t plan on itemizing your home office expenses on your 2020 return. 

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