Employees telecommuting from home for work is becoming a fact of life in the Internet age. Employers are embracing such arrangements, such that they now are beginning to reimburse employees for the Internet services they use at home for work purposes.
A case in point is the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). The Acting Chief Financial Officer of the PTO recently made a request to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) for permission to reimburse its employees for costs associated with maintaining high-speed Internet access at employees' homes incident to the PTO's telework program. The GAO just approved this request, while recommending that the PTO periodically review reimbursements to ensure that there are adequate safeguards in place against private misuse. The background is as follows:
The PTO is a federal agency within the Department of Commerce that is charged with the mission of promoting the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to inventors the exclusive right to their inventions.
The PTO has proposed a telecommuting program whereby its employees would be permitted to telecommute up to four days per week from an approved designated alternative work site - usually the employees' homes. The PTO believes that this program will improve workforce recruitment and retention, reduce traffic congestion and pollution in the Washington, D.C. area, and realize substantial cost savings to the PTO. The PTO expects to have 3,300 employees participating in this program by 2011.
As part of the program, the PTO would require employees to maintain high-speed Internet access meeting certain minimum technical requirements, would require employees to submit copies of invoices from their Internet service providers (ISPs), and to attest to the percentage of ISP services used for work-related purposes.
Employees would be eligible for only 50 or 100 percent reimbursement, depending on the amount of monthly business use of Internet services. The program only would reimburse for the basic rate of ISP connection services, and would not reimburse charges or costs associated with service initiation, activation, installation, etc. Employees also would be required to disclose whether the ISP provides bundled services, so that television, telephone and other services would not be reimbursed along with reimbursement for the Internet connection. The maximum allowable reimbursement for high-speed Internet access per employee per month would be $100.
The PTO has put controls in place that it believes will help ensure that ISP services are reimbursed only for work-related purposes. The PTO, for example, would measure the productivity of participating employees biweekly, quarterly and annually. Furthermore, to participate in the telework program, an employee must be rated at least "fully successful" overall in his or her most recent performance evaluation. He or she also must agree to give up his or her individual office at the PTO headquarters.
Based on all of the foregoing, the GAO has approved the PTO's telework program with respect to reimbursement of high-speed Internet access for its employees who work from remote sites - generally from their own homes. The only caveat imposed by the GAO is the admonition that the PTO continue to monitor the situation to make sure there is no private misuse and that reimbursed Internet connections are used for official work purposes.
Plainly, the PTO's telework program is laudable and the GAO's decision is correct. There are many benefits to telecommuting. There are employer cost savings of not having to maintain an office and other resources for an employee who works from home. There are great conveniences for the employee who no longer has to travel to and from work. And there are societal benefits, such as reduced traffic, congestion and pollution.
The location of an employee is not as important as the employee's performance. Employee performance and productivity can be measured. So long as an employee is performing his or her job functions well from home, those functions should be supported. Internet access in this day and age is critical to support, and the employer cost of reimbursing such access is nominal when compared to the cost of maintaining an employee in an office at the employer's premises.
Eric Sinrod is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. His Web site is http://www.sinrodlaw.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod's columns, please send an email to him with Subscribe in the Subject line.
This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's law firm or its individual partners.