Monday, March 16, 2020

Creating Work at Home Policies (On The Fly)

Employers are scrambling to implement work-from-home policies to reduce their employees’ coronavirus exposure while still maintaining productivity. Where once resistant to most staff working from home, necessity has become the mother of invention.

Until now, some employers have had loose policies for exempt employees, allowing them to work remotely from time to time in exchange for longer hours at the worksite, but many employers have been reluctant to allow the same flexibility for hourly or non-exempt workers because, among other things, of the difficulty in keeping track of time worked. While monitoring time is certainly one challenge to work from home benefits, so are a few others. A viable work-from-home policy should include the following:
  • Make sure the policy is clear as to what equipment and materials the employer will provide and what equipment and materials the employee is expected to have.
  • Also, clearly define what expenses the employer will reimburse when the employee works at home. For instance, will the employer pay for any portion of the wi-fi cost to the employee or part of their cell phone bill if they have to call the office? Remember that the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act provides that an employer shall reimburse an employee for all “necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee with the employee’s scope of employment and direction related to services performed for the employer.” Necessary expenditures are described as “all reasonable expenditures or losses required of the employee in the discharge of employment” that primarily benefit the employer. Losses do not include normal wear and tear of property, or that result from the employee’s negligence or due to theft unless caused by the employer’s negligence. The Act requires an employee to submit an expense reimbursement request within 30 days after incurring the expense along with supporting documentation of the expense.
  • Require the employee to only transmit information and documents electronically via an employer-issued email address. This will reduce the possible corruption of the employer’s email system or server.
  • Set work expectations. Identify the work that the employee is expected to complete.
  • Employees must have a space at home that is conducive to working. It must be safe from likely injury (no wires strung everywhere for example) and secluded enough from the rest of the house (a door that shuts off the workspace) to reduce or eliminate distractions from other family members, the dog, the delivery drivers who are bringing packages because we’re not going out shopping much these days, etc. Require employees to describe their work at home space, or better yet, provide a photo of it to the employer. As most of us who have ever worked at home know, it is virtually impossible to efficiently work from the family room where the kids are watching a movie, playing video games, texting with their friends and otherwise just being kids. It is also important to remember that employees who are working at home or anywhere remotely, are still covered by the employer’s worker’s compensation insurance for injuries arising out of or in the course of employment. It will just be much more difficult to ascertain whether an injury is compensable, so an employer has the right to assurance that the employee will work in a safe area. 
  • Require close accounting of time worked remotely, especially for non-exempt workers. This includes requiring a check-in when the employee begins work and at various times during the workday, as well as a check-out when they stop working for the day. Some employers require actual timekeeping records of what work the employee performed during the day and how long they worked on the project so that the employer can better evaluate whether duties completed reasonably match the hours worked. Remind employees that they are not entitled to work extra time, even if they are at home, without prior supervisor authorization. With off-hours access to their work email, some employees may want to “catch up” on correspondence in the evening. The problem is that this is compensable work time for non-exempt employees and counts towards the 40-hour weekly threshold for overtime eligibility. Remember that the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act requires employers to keep track of exempt employees’ time too, but such close scrutiny is not required. 
  • Finally, remember that working at home must still advance the employer’s needs. With schools closed for all students and online education required, it is tempting for employees to try to work and take care of their children or assist them with their school work at the same time. It’s usually just not possible. When an employee checks in for work, whatever time of day that might be, they need to be dedicated to working. While employers may want to be more flexible with an employee’s scheduled hours of work when telecommuting, the bottom line is that they have to devote their attention to work when they are on “paid time,” just as if they were in the office.

One interesting and positive result from this unprecedented time of social distancing and alternative work arrangements is that some employers who were reluctant to implement remote work arrangements may conclude that it’s not such a bad thing and incorporate it as part of their work culture on a more permanent basis.