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February 16, 2021
Have Clear Rules About Remote Employees Buying Their Own Office Supplies

Before the COVID-19 crisis, employees could pop into the office supply closet for the ream of paper they needed to print that 50-page report or a box of staples or pens to refill their dwindling stash. Now, they may be buying office supplies as they work from home. To ensure costs don’t spiral out of control and to reduce the risk of potential wage and hour claims, employers should develop or fine-tune their remote work purchasing and reimbursement policies.

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What State Laws Tell Us

Florida law doesn’t require reimbursing employees for business expenses. They may claim, however, the expenditures are business-related, which can create wage and hour issues under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA):

  • Hourly employees who purchase 6 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 must reimburse employees for certain business-related purchases. The expenses have been interpreted to include office supplies (e.g., pens or printer paper and ink).

In California, employers are required to reimburse employees for certain “necessary” business expenses. Courts in the state have interpreted the rule to include the use of equipment, such as cell phones and computers, even when the employee already owns them.

A California employment attorney recently told me some employees are even beginning to claim they’re owed a reimbursement for the use of their home as an office. The argument is likely beyond the scope of reasonable reimbursable expenses, but it highlights how easily the issue can get out of hand.

What Employers Can Do

You can avoid triggering remote work reimbursement issues by developing a clear policy for buying supplies and equipment. If employees will be allowed to make purchases, the policy should (1) define what kinds of supplies are permitted and (2) establish a limit on the amount they can spend.

Some businesses have gone a step further by providing employees with a weekly or monthly stipend for purchasing any items on a preapproved list. The important thing is to remain vigilant and proactive about who is paying for the supplies needed by employees to perform their jobs while they remain at home for the foreseeable future.

Paul Crucet is an attorney with Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson, P.A., in Fort Lauderdale. You can reach him at pcrucet@stearnsweaver.com.

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