In the work-from-home era, who pays for coffee and toilet paper?

Working remotely requires a desk, chair, internet, and electricity – and that doesn’t count creature comforts supplied at the office. Some countries are exploring whether employers should cover these “structural, ongoing costs of working from home.”

Eva Plevier/AP
A woman works from home, a new routine caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, in Sassenheim, Netherlands, Oct. 2, 2020. A Dutch finance group found workers should be compensated $2.40 per day for costs incurred from working from home since March.

As the world convulses in crisis, and tens of millions of us dig in for the long haul of working from home, one question looms large: Who pays for the tea and toilet paper?

The answer, according to the Dutch, should be your bosses.

And how much? About $2.40 per working day, on average.

That’s meant to cover not only coffee, tea, and toilet paper used in work hours, but also the extra gas, electricity, and water, plus the depreciation costs of a desk and a chair – all essentials that you’d never dream of paying for in the office. “We have literally calculated down to how many teaspoons there are in an average household, so from there it’s not that difficult to establish the costs,” said Gabrielle Bettonville, of family finances institution NIBUD, which is mainly funded by the government and has researched the extra costs of remote working.

Such accounting may seem somewhat trivial at a time when the world is overwhelmed by a once-in-a-century pandemic, yet they are relevant as experts predict a deep decline in office-based work could be a permanent legacy of the crisis.

Dutch authorities have already started applying NIBUD’s research, citing it to offer bureaucrats working from home a $427.35 COVID-19 “bonus” this year, starting in March when the country went into lockdown.

Of course, the $2.40 a day is for an average worker with average costs, but can be tweaked depending on measures such as home heating and water costs, or the quality of insulation.

It does not cover new furniture, computers, phones, or other equipment which NIBUD says employees should receive from their employers if necessary for their work.

A new workday reality

Other countries are also moving to adjust to the new work-from-home reality, aware that many employees have little appetite to return to the office full-time even once the pandemic has passed.

Spain has obliged employers to pay for home office maintenance and equipment; Germany is debating a bill enshrining remote workers’ rights; France has passed a law shielding them from after-hours email; Britain has hinted that it may relax the rules on tax deductions for work-related equipment purchased during the pandemic.

But few nations have delved into the detail as deeply as the Dutch.

“The government has set a good example here,” said Jose Kager of FNV, the country’s largest labor union, which wants all home-workers to receive compensation along the lines laid out by NIBUD.

“We’re talking about structural, ongoing costs of working from home,” she added.

Many of FNV’s members still have to physically show up for work, such as those at paintmaker AkzoNobel’s factories and Heineken’s breweries. But most bank workers, insurance company employees, call center staffers, and many others have been working from home since March. Around 80% of Dutch workers are covered by collective labor agreements.

Bank ABN Amro pays for workers to outfit their home offices, but routine expenses remain an open question. Spokesman Jarco de Swart said the bank did not believe workers would ever work from the office more than three days a week.

Cappuccino machine, anyone?

As ever, there are two sides to the story. Bosses argue extra payments make little sense at a time when the coronavirus crisis has floored the economy.

Additionally, Dutch employers’ association AWVN spokesman Jannes van der Velde said the NIBUD calculations did not reflect all the benefits home workers were enjoying.

“This call from unions for everybody to get compensation because people are now making their own coffee at home – one might observe that workers are also getting a lot of free time in exchange,” he said, citing average time savings of one hour per day from the lack of commuting.

While workers should be compensated for home office costs, that will be offset by cuts to their compensation for transit and other travel benefits, he added.

“It won’t be the case that people, pretty much anywhere, are going to get an extra “bonus” on top of their salary – definitely not during an economic recession.”

And, of course, there are limits.

Surely it makes perfect sense for a boss to cough up for a productivity-enhancing cappuccino machine?

Apparently not, according to Jeroen van Velzen of the Dutch interior ministry, which is covering additional costs on a case-by-case basis.

“No, of course this is limited to the things that are needed to be able to perform your work,” he said.

This story was reported by Reuters.

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