Q: I work for a nonprofit that serves low-income families in some of the poorest neighborhoods in our city. We have three neighborhood sites directly serving the community and one small administrative office where I worked until the lockdown in March. My job was not designed as a work-from-home position, but we successfully adjusted. However, our community service staff must be physically on site to do their jobs, putting their health at risk.

We recently learned that our state has a law requiring employers to reimburse employees for work-related expenditures, which may include remote-working expenses. Since we’ve been asked to keep working from home until 2021, I asked if it would be possible to provide a stipend or reimbursement for a home office setup (I don’t have a desk or proper office chair) and internet expenses.

I was made to feel guilty for asking and was told the health concerns and needs of the on-site workers take priority. In addition, I was told that reimbursing remote staff simply isn’t “in the budget” and that I should feel lucky to be able to perform my duties at home. I never intended to undermine the issues our on-site staff are facing. Should I just shut up and allow more important issues to be addressed?

A: Even for cash-starved nonprofit organizations struggling to get by in a pandemic, “That’s not in our budget” is not an excuse for failing to comply with the law.

And I take a dim view of anyone using “Count yourself lucky” as a cudgel. Yes, you’re lucky to have a job that can be done remotely. Your front-line colleagues are lucky to have paying jobs when so many have lost theirs. Everyone who still enjoys coronavirus-free health is lucky. For that matter, your employer is lucky to be able to get work out of you without being responsible for disinfecting your workspace. You can be mindful of your relative advantages and still be entitled to, say, a functional computer or a chair that doesn’t wreck your back so you can do your job.

Pandemic or no, reimbursement policies for work-related employee expenditures “should already be on employers’ radar,” according to Lenore Horton, an employment attorney with FisherBroyles. When employees bring up concerns or questions about work-related costs, says Horton, “the answer’s not to just swat them away.”

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Rather, employers should take the opportunity to recognize and fix the gap between what their policies cover and what the law requires. And many employers have voluntarily stepped up with home-office reimbursements and allowances since the coronavirus pandemic forced them to send workers home.

Still, for every worker enjoying a home-office subsidy, others are perching uncomfortably at their kitchen tables and using portable hot spots for internet access. Federal law requires reimbursement only when required expenses push a worker’s earnings below minimum wage. The rest is up to states and individual employers.

I’m guessing you have neither the resources nor the moral inclination to engage your employer in a costly legal battle. But might your employer be willing to let you borrow an unoccupied chair and table from the office? Or help negotiate a deal with another business that may be downsizing its inventory? An employer that at least tries to support its workers is going to reap more loyalty and productivity than one that seeks to shame them into silence.

Pro tip: Hold on to your utility bills and receipts for any work-related purchases. Even though the federal deduction for unreimbursed business expenses was eliminated in 2018 for individual employees, some states still allow you to deduct them.

Update: Last week, I recommended contacting an employment attorney for help recovering unpaid wages. Readers pointed out that someone without income is going to have a hard time affording legal support. Fair point! Here are a few resources for low- or no-cost legal aid:

Free Legal Answers, sponsored by the American Bar Association.

— Your state’s bar association should have a directory of lawyers, including those offering low- or no-cost consultations.

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— Legal rights advocacy groups often sponsor legal clinics and workshops for the communities they serve.

USA.gov lists resources for pro bono or low-cost legal aid.

Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)
Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)