Q: I live in New York City and have been working remotely since the quarantine started. We are not encouraged to go into the office, and current scuttlebutt is that we will never go back — or, at most, it would be two days a week.
One of the perks of the job was an unlimited MetroCard. That was cut during the pandemic as we stayed in our apartments. Now, as the city reopens, I’ve begun using public transit again (not for work), at my own expense.
If we stay remote or go in only a few times a month, do I have any right to ask my employer about reinstating/updating the transit perk? It feels greedy, but at the same time it was a spelled-out benefit of the job that saved me about $1,600 a year.
A: I wouldn’t call it “greedy” to want a $1,600 annual benefit reinstated. But spending priorities have changed during the epidemic, and employers tend to want to offer perks that benefit them as well as employees. Even if the funds are available, your employer probably doesn’t see much incentive in continuing to subsidize a commute you no longer have.
But you’re not alone in feeling the sting of lost benefits. In their efforts to stay afloat through the coronavirus pandemic, many employers have been cutting back on matching retirement plan contributions, bonuses, and other employee expenses deemed nonessential to their operations in the short term.
Meanwhile, some employers have increased spending on benefits that specifically address employee needs created by the pandemic, such as increased wellness and family care support, hazard pay and even incentives for getting vaccinated.
So although it seems unlikely you’ll be able to persuade your employer to reinstate the transit perk for your personal benefit, you might be able to make a case for other ways your employer can compensate for its loss — especially if, like many, you have incurred additional expenses in working from home.
In a recent study, Harvard Business School researchers found a significant increase in housing costs — what they call the “remote premium” — for employees shifting to an all-remote work environment. Naturally, that premium falls heaviest on those who can least afford it; the researchers estimated that the lowest-income households would need as much as an additional 10% to 15% added to their earnings to compensate for those increased housing costs. In another study of energy consumption trends in the early months of the pandemic, a Tufts University researcher found that while industrial and commercial electricity consumption dropped 12% to 14%, residential electrical consumption rose by 10%.
Employers that are saving money on commercial rental and utilities by converting to an all-remote workforce might consider passing those savings to employees to help offset their increased residential housing and utilities costs.