Working from home? Your employer may owe you for work-related expenses, like cell phones, internet, computer, office supplies and travel costs.
Even before COVID-19, remote work policies were rising in popularity — usually as an optional perk for employees. But with the onset of COVID-19, millions of U.S. workers are now required to work from home.
In California, if you’re one of these remote workers — even part-time — your employer may be responsible for some of your home office expenses.
That’s because under California law, employers must reimburse their employees for all “necessary expenditures or losses” incurred in connection with their jobs.
This means your employer will be also responsible for some of your expenses if you:
- travel for work,
- use your own equipment for work, or
- otherwise incur expenses in connection with your job.
The idea is that your employer must provide you with everything you need to perform your duties — it shouldn’t be able to pass its operating expenses on to you.
This guide will help you understand which of your home office and other work-related expenses may be reimbursable under California law.
Which work-related expenses are reimbursable in California?
California law only requires reimbursement of expenses that are necessary to perform your work duties. Your employer does not have to cover expenses that you incur for your convenience only — though they might choose to.
This means if you’re required to work from home, your employer doesn’t have to reimburse “optional” home office expenses. Examples may include:
- higher-speed internet (when a slower speed is enough for your work),
- multiple computer monitors,
- printers (when you can do your work digitally), and
- ergonomic furniture or accessories (unless they are medically necessary).
In addition, under California law employers don’t have to reimburse expenses incurred because an employee chooses to work from home.
That means if you take part in an optional work-from-home program, your home office expenses may not be reimbursable. This is because you could still work in your employer’s office and use the supplies and equipment available to you there.
Otherwise, there are many types of work-related expenses that your employer may have to cover. Below are some of the most common.
Cell phone and internet bill reimbursement
Many employees use their personal cell phones and home internet for work-related activities.
Some employers even require employees to install and use certain apps on their phones, such as group messaging, email, timekeeping, and location tracking if an employee is working in the field.
If your employer requires you to use your cell phone for work, it must reimburse you for at least a reasonable percentage of your bill. [efn_note]ee Cochran v. Schwan’s Home Service, Inc., 228 Cal.App.4th 1137 (2014).[/efn_note]If your employer requires you to maintain internet access at home, it must also reimburse at least a reasonable percentage of your internet service bill. [efn_note]See Aguilar v. Zep Inc., 2014 WL 4245988 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 27, 2014); Cochran v. Schwan’s Home Service, Inc., 228 Cal.App.4th 1137 (2014).[/efn_note]
Of course, there’s a good chance that you’d have a cell phone and home internet even if you didn’t have to use them for work. But in California, this doesn’t matter. It also doesn’t matter if you have an unlimited plan. Your employer should still reimburse you a reasonable percentage if they require you to use them for work.
If you need certain equipment for your work — such as a computer, tablet, or printer — your employer has to provide that equipment or reimburse you for the cost. As noted above, however, upgrades for personal convenience aren’t reimbursable.
Many employees also use their personal devices for work. If your employer expects you to use your own equipment, they should reimburse you a reasonable amount.
In addition, your employer has to reimburse you for any paid software or applications they require you to use.
Office supplies reimbursement
When you work remotely, you might also incur other home office expenses. These expenses may include, among others:
- office supplies such as pens and notepads;
- printer ink and paper; and
- postage, mailing, and courier services.
Your employer may also be responsible for these, so long as such expenses are necessary for your job.
Vehicle expenses are another common reimbursable expense.
If you drive your personal car for work, your employer has to reimburse you for gas and mileage. This may be the case if you work out in the field, or even if you just run errands for your employer every now and then.
This shouldn’t be confused with the costs of driving to and from your place of work. Daily commuting expenses are generally not reimbursable. But if your employer asks you to perform work-related duties on your way to or from work, under California law they should reimburse your vehicle expenses.
Reimbursing vehicle expenses isn’t always straightforward. Your employer can reimburse your actual driving expenses[efn_note]See Gattuso v. Harte Hanks Shoppers, Inc. 169 P.3d 889 (2007).[/efn_note] — but this would include gas, maintenance, repairs, insurance, depreciation, and registration. You and your employer would have to find a way to calculate which part of your expenses can be attributed to business use.
To make it easier, many employers reimburse vehicle expenses based on the IRS guidelines for standard mileage reimbursement instead. As of January 1, 2020, the standard mileage reimbursement for work-related driving is 57.5 cents per business mile driven.
If you can show that your actual expenses are more than the standard mileage rate, your employer will need to pay the difference between the two.
Travel costs reimbursement
If you ever have to travel for work, your employer has to cover all necessary travel expenses, too. Common travel expenses include, among others:
- mileage expenses or car rental
- parking and tolls
- taxi or public transportation costs
- business center expenses (copy, fax, printing)
- phone and internet access charges
But your employer isn’t required to reimburse all expenses you incur while traveling. Personal entertainment costs, like sightseeing or going to a movie, are generally not reimbursable.
Note that your employer may also have its own travel expense policy. For example, they may require you to book through a specific travel agent, or they may impose caps on hotel or meal reimbursements.
Having a travel policy is permitted. But the policy won’t override your right to reimbursement under California law. That means your employer can’t use its policy to force you to pay out-of-pocket expenses if they’re necessary to perform your duties.
Travel time compensation
If you travel for work, your employer often has to pay you for your time as well. This is because you generally must be paid for whatever time you spend subject to the control of your employer.
This requirement doesn’t apply to “exempt” employees under California law. “Exempt” employees are typically those in salaried administrative, executive, or professional roles.
If you’re a non-exempt employee, your usual commuting time isn’t paid, but most other work-related travel is. If, for example, you have to attend a training, you should be paid for the travel time to and from the training location, minus the time for your usual commute.
If traveling by air, you should be paid from the time you leave your home until you reach the destination (minus your regular commute time), or until you no longer perform work. At your destination, if you go directly to the training, your employer must continue to pay you. But once you’re free to do what you choose, such as sleeping or sightseeing, your employer no longer has to pay you.
Traveling doesn’t require you to use your skills as an employee, so your employer can pay you less than your normal wages. It may be as little as minimum wage. But because travel time is still considered work time, overtime pay rules apply.
Work uniforms reimbursement
If your employer requires you to wear a uniform, it must provide the uniform or reimburse you for the cost.
A “uniform” includes any clothing of a distinctive design or color.[efn_note]See Industrial Welfare Commission Orders, Section 9.[/efn_note] But your employer does not have to reimburse you for basic items of clothing that are generally usable in your industry, like black pants and a white shirt. This is true even if you wouldn’t have otherwise bought these items.
If your uniform requires minimal time and expense to maintain, your employer also doesn’t have to pay for maintenance. This includes “wash and wear” items that can be washed with your other clothing. But if the fabric requires dry cleaning, ironing, or special laundering, your employer should give you a maintenance allowance.
What should you do if your employer isn’t reimbursing you for work-related expenses?
Getting expense reimbursements can sometimes be tricky, as there’s no deadline set by law.
But if you’re concerned about your reimbursements, you should first try talking to your employer. It may be possible to resolve the problem quickly and easily.
Sometimes, however, employers refuse to reimburse legitimate work-related expenses or unreasonably delay reimbursement. If this happens to you, you can file a report with the California Labor Commissioner’s office or consult an attorney about filing a lawsuit.
A successful lawsuit may help you recover:
- unreimbursed expenses,
- interest, and
- reasonable attorneys’ fees and court costs.
The Labor Commissioner could also issue a citation against your employer for violating the California Labor Code. The financial penalties imposed by the Labor Commissioner would be paid to you.
If you’re nervous about complaining, keep in mind that it’s unlawful for your employer to retaliate or discriminate against you for pursuing your right to expense reimbursement. If they do, you can file another complaint against them.
Are you a California employee with questions for an employment attorney?
If you have questions about work-related expense reimbursements or other employment issues, you may want to consult an attorney.
We’re committed to effectively representing the rights of employees across the state of California — because we believe that everyone has the right to earn a living and provide for their family, free of unlawful discrimination and harassment.
Our firm has won millions of dollars for employees all over California and we only take cases on contingency, which means we don’t get paid unless we win your case. Our fees come out of the court verdict or settlement with the company, so you don’t pay anything out of pocket.
If you’d like our help evaluating your case and understanding the options available to you, we would love to help.
Contact Whitehead Employment Law today at 949-936-4001. Consultations are free and confidential.
DISCLAIMER: This article does not provide legal advice and does not establish an attorney-client relationship. If you need legal advice, please contact an attorney directly.