Working from home during coronavirus? Some expenses are up to employers, experts say

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More than three months into the coronavirus pandemic, many Canadians are still asking each other the same question: “Are you working from home?”

The shift from cubicles and commutes to kitchen tables and day-old sweatpants happened almost overnight for millions of Canadians. Despite some movement from provinces to reboot the economy, working from home might be here to stay. Some companies, like Shopify and Twitter, have decided to do away with the office completely.

But as time has passed, costs have accrued.

“If you are working from home, there’s a greater expense to you,” said Andrew Monkhouse, a Toronto-based employment lawyer.

READ MORE: Will coronavirus kill the traditional office as we know it?

“In normal circumstances, an employee might ask to work from home and the employer might agree, but say certain things won’t be paid for. But this year, everyone was shoved into working at home in a one-week period. It’s a whole different circumstance.”

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So who is on the hook for work-from-home resources, the employer or the employee?

It depends on what’s a necessity and what’s a “comfort,” said Lior Samfiru, the founder of the labour and employment law practice at Samfiru Tumarkin LLP.

The employer is required to pay for everything that’s required to get the job done, he said. That might be a computer or other office equipment, depending on the type of work and industry.

“Usually the types of items that are strictly necessary are fairly limited,” he said. “But there are things that go beyond the necessary.”

While you may be accustomed to using an ergonomic chair at the office and would prefer to use one at your home office, that may be considered a preference.

“There are things that may make life easier or more comfortable that might not be deemed necessary,” he said.

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People with pre-existing health conditions are exceptions to this. If a chair or device is needed for medical reasons, then the employer would have to pay for it.

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What’s key to understanding the situation is that no employee is obligated to agree to work from home, said Samfiru. But the pandemic has created a bit of a grey area.

Non-essential businesses have been asked to close at governments’ request and many companies have opted to go remote to abide by public safety guidelines. Typically, expecting an employee to work remotely would be an agreement made upon hiring. While the pandemic has made that impossible for many employers, it’s “perfectly appropriate for employees to set parameters” now, said Samfiru.

Those parameters might also stretch beyond technology and equipment.

Spending more time in your house might mean the electricity bill, heating and cooling bill and phone bills increase, said Samfiru.

The employer can very well pitch in on that, he said.

“It’s a cost,” said Samfiru. “It’s one I have to incur to allow me to work from home, even for a moment. That’s reasonable.”

READ MORE: Work-from-home ‘revolution’ possible as companies adapt to coronavirus measures, says HR expert

The tricky part is having conversations with employers about these expenses, both experts agreed. In some cases, companies have chosen to provide employees with an allowance to cover bills.

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Employers aren’t legally required to do so, and might not agree to it given the financial burden many companies are facing, Monkhouse said, but it’s a good compromise.

“It’s probably the easiest way to go about it, to get a lump sum amount,” he said.

Monkhouse recommends employees look back at the existing policies of their workplace to see what they should already be expensing before having that conversation.

“At work, your employer would presumably reimburse reasonable expenses, maybe paper and pens. It might seem cheap, but you should be expensing that if you’re going out and buying it,” he said. “If they don’t, that’s the type of reimbursement for your taxes.”

What about rent?

Rent payments haven’t changed despite many spending far more time at home.

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In Canada, pressure on governments about worsening financial situations by renters has mounted. Canada has unveiled a swath of emergency aid benefits, including funding for those who have lost their job and breaks for commercial landlords, but nothing specific to residential tenants.

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Some countries have taken it a step further. In Switzerland, the country’s top court ruled that employers are required to contribute to employees’ rent payments if they are working from home at the employer’s request. It does not apply to employees who may have the option of going to the office, but choose not to.

It’s unlikely Canada has an appetite for that means of support, said Samfiru.

“The better way to deal with things like that is our tax system, frankly,” he said.

Canadians working from home can claim a portion of their home expenses on their taxes if they are using part of their house for work purposes and if an agreement with their employer wasn’t fruitful.

The Canadian Revenue Agency already allows for a deduction for some home-office expenses. Those who are working at home for a few months due to COVID-19 still qualify for part of it, according to tax experts.

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The T-2200 form is what employees should look for. It’s a Declaration of Conditions of Employment issued by the Canada Revenue Agency that employers must fill out to declare they are not reimbursing employees for expenses.

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The amount claimed is based on how much of the home is used as a workspace. It can also include expenses like electricity, gas, property taxes and repairs. The total expenses for items like paper, pens or laptops purchased by the employee for work purposes that are not reimbursed by the employer can also be claimed.

“Rent could be also included in that,” said Monkhouse. But he cautioned that there are criteria employees should be aware of when filing.

To be eligible, your home (or a portion of it) must either be your principal place of work (where more than 50 per cent of your working time is spent), or it must be a space designated specifically for work and used on a regular and continuous basis.

Ultimately, employees have options, said Samfiru, and should seek them out as more time at work is spent at home.

“It might be the better way than saying, ‘Employers have to pay for that.’ Especially these days with employers struggling to add that additional cost. It might be a bit much for some employers,” he said. “It’s probably a win-win for employer and employees.”

— with files from the Canadian Press and Global News’ Brittany Greenslade