Pre-COVID, employees could pop into the office supply closet for the ream of paper they needed to print that 50-page report, or the box of staples, pens and pack of tabs to refill their dwindling supply. Now, they may be buying office supplies as they work from home. In order to reduce the risk of potential wage and hour claims, and ensure that costs do not spiral out of control, employers will need to develop remote work purchasing and reimbursement policies.
Florida law does not require reimbursing employees for business expenses. However, employees may make expenditures they claim are business related, which may create wage and hour issues under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). An hourly employee who purchases six months’ worth of office supplies, a new top-of-the-line computer or the latest Swedish-designed ergonomic desk chair could easily see their wages unlawfully drop below minimum wage when the purchases are taken into account. Similarly, salaried employees making a large number of purchases run the risk of losing their exempt status.
States such as Illinois, Montana, Iowa, New Hampshire and California have laws addressing when employers are to reimburse employees for certain business-related purchases. These expenses have been interpreted to include office supplies such as printer paper, pens, and printer ink. In California, employers are required to reimburse employees for certain “necessary” business expenses. California courts have interpreted this to include the use of equipment, such as cell phones and computers, even where the employee already owns such equipment.
I have been told by a California employment attorney recently that some employees are even beginning to claim that they are owed a reimbursement for the use of their home as an office. This is likely beyond the scope of reasonable reimbursable expenses, but it highlights how easily this issue can get out of hand.
Employers can avoid these issues by developing a clear policy regarding purchasing supplies and equipment for remote work. If employees will be allowed to make purchases, the policy should delineate what kinds of supplies are permitted, and establish a limit on the amount that can be spent. Some businesses have gone a step further by providing employees with a weekly or monthly stipend that employees can use to purchase any items on a pre-approved list. The important thing is that employers remain vigilant and proactive regarding who is paying for supplies needed by employees to perform their jobs as they remain at home for the foreseeable future.