Remote workers want the employer to pay for travel to the home office


Reader: I recently became the boss of a small business. During the coronavirus pandemic, some of our remote employees decided to leave town without seeking or obtaining employer approval. Who is responsible for their expenses when they return to town for a meeting or conference—the employer or the employee?

Remote workers who have moved out of town seem to think that the employer should pay for their transportation, hotels, and meals when they return to the city for work. As well as an added expense for a small business, it also seems unfair to local employees as we do not cover their travel expenses when they come to the office. Any thoughts on this?

The remote work revolution is already reshaping America

Carla: As the dust settles from the Great Resignation / Great Reset / Great Whatever-We’re-Calling-It-Now, remote work has enabled more workers than ever to leave their offices — and in some cases, far away from them. Some seek more affordable and more spacious housing, or to be closer to family or live in an area that suits their overall well-being.

But employees who suddenly and unilaterally change the terms of their terms of employment, under the theory that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, should understand that they are still at risk of hearing “No.” With a favorable job market for workers and employers desperate to retain talent, many workers have decided they are willing to take that risk.

This employee-driven exodus has forced many employers to rethink their business model and how they manage their distributed workforces. Some, including Meta/Facebook, Novartis, Dropbox and Slack, are embracing a remote “work from anywhere” model for many or all employees. Others, including Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Tesla, are choosing to limit or ban remote work. Between these extremes are employers like you, looking for a hybrid solution that is legal, cost-effective and fair to both out-of-town and local workers.

First, there is the question of what is legal. As you note, regular travel costs between home and work are usually not covered by employers and that travel time is not generally considered work time. But when an employee’s home becomes their primary place of work, it can change the way the law views travel between that primary place of work and other places owned by the employer.

Federal law does not require employers to reimburse employees for any expenses unless it reduces their pay below the minimum wage. But California and other states require reimbursement for certain work-related expenses, including travel. So you should start by determining whether you are legally required to cover the cost of transporting employees to your office, or whether you have the option to decline to do so.

Then there is the matter of cost. Covering travel costs would be an added expense. Allowing remote workers’ homes to become their primary workplaces, especially if they’ve moved to another state or country, can also mean additional tax exposure and other new expenses. But refusing to allow these changes can also cost you if those workers leave and you have to replace them.

If you decide paying for travel is the best investment, you can control those costs with a clear and consistent spending policy; limiting the frequency of necessary office visits; and revising your compensation structure to account for the variable cost of living in different geographic areas, including lowering wages or leveling future raises and bonuses for workers in lower-cost areas. You may even be able to lessen the financial hit if the new expenses you’re paying are tax deductible. In any case, you should speak with tax, legal and benefits experts to determine the most cost-effective options.

Finally, there is the question of what is right. As you say, it’s no good that employees who made a unilateral decision to leave outside of travel limits have to travel, sleep and eat on the company’s dime when local employees are paying those expenses themselves. And don’t kid yourself that local employees won’t notice or care about this disparity.

The lawsuit alleges that the Booz Allen employee lost his job due to telecommuting for migraines

But as with any personal lifestyle choice that can result in friction in the workplace—workers with children versus those without, early birds versus night owls—there are ways to balance the plates. If you’re not already doing so, you can offer local employees transit and parking benefits; provide group meals in the office; and, of course, allow local workers the same kind of flexibility and autonomy over their work hours that their out-of-town colleagues enjoy. And you should draft a policy that defines how your company will handle telecommuting and relocation requests in the future.

There’s no guaranteed solution to make everyone happy, but if you’re intentional, consistent, and transparent in your response to these changes, your company may come out stronger for it.

Reader Question: Does your employer require employees to live within commuting distance of an office? Let me know at [email protected].

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