Telecommuting: Legal pitfalls and how to avoid them

What is the future of telecommuting? Estimates are that 63 million people (43% of the U.S. workforce) will be “teleworking” by 2016, up from 34 million in 2009. It is the future for the U.S. workplace, and to remain competitive, companies of every size will be looking into options and transitions for at least part of its workforce.S

Presently about 5% of the federal workforce telecommutes; to push that number higher, President Obama signed into law the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, which required federal agencies to come up with policies to promote telecommuting and to establish policy for all employees except personnel who do “on-site activity that cannot be handled remotely or at an alternate worksite,” or those involved with emergency management or response situations.

A June 2010 study by FedScoop revealed that 93% of federal workers said the telecommuting option would make working for an organization more desirable. To encourage full participation, the law provisionally tested travel reimbursements for any required home-to-work meetings, too.

A 2012 review of the law’s required pilot program concluded that there are other goals to include going forward: 1) that employees with the longest commutes be encouraged to telecommute; 2) that employees are educated about how to best save energy while teleworking, and 3) that employers are encouraged to extend the option to underserved employees (those with high demand expertise, workers with disabilities, or returning Wounded Warriors).

We know the sweet benefits of increased productivity and employee engagement, but before I frost the cake with tips on how to maximize those, I want to send out a very clear message. WARNING: Teleworking is an employee benefit, subject to wage and hour law provisions. If you bypass that, figuring an offsite worker is now an independent contractor or free-lance labor, you’ll lose.

Here’s why: The Federal-State Unemployment Insurance Program provides unemployment benefits to eligible workers who are unemployed through no fault of their own (as determined under State law). Each State administers a separate unemployment insurance program within guidelines established by Federal law. Some states (Wisconsin, for example) had to be inventive to fund unemployment coffers after the Federal Government (Congress) lengthened the terms that displaced workers could claim unemployment benefits. Where would the money come from?

Initially businesses were taxed with new shortfall rates to cover their newly assigned portions, but when that wasn’t enough money raised, Wisconsin (“coincidentally”, as the State’s [then] Secretary of Commerce assured me … uh huh] hired investigators to, well, investigate companies using contracted employees — and to arduously challenge those arrangements. Any fines would be deposited into the unemployment coffers.

There are very, very rigorous tests employed to determine eligibility for an independent contractor arrangement (you can’t provide equipment, oversight, etc.) so astonished companies long in the habit of employing freelancers were fined and ordered to pay back benefits to the state – and to add injury to insult, some were then sued by the independent contractors-turned-employees, represented by a new line of employment attorney specializing in recovering “due” sick time, benefits, overtime, etc.

Bottom line: an employee is an employee; positional status doesn’t change with the work environment. Here are some other tips, too, which (luckily) aren’t so onerous or unexpected!

Eligibility: Telecommuting policy must be implemented in a nondiscriminatory manner, meaning it isn’t by favor, but by job responsibility and duties. If you have a special needs employee, work from home might be a suitable answer as a reasonable form of accommodation and, in that case, that worker might be afforded the privilege that others would not need, and so could be denied at will. You aren’t setting a precedent for the position, in other words, when you make an accommodation.

Wage Laws: Non-exempt employees who work more than 40 hours in a week are owed overtime, period. You need to establish policies that clearly spell out compensated work and compensated time, and you need to be able to track it as well as the employee. If overtime is not permitted, make it clear what your policy is or you may find yourself on the wrong side of a labor dispute.

Proprietary Information: For the transmission of work, or the actual handling of company files outside the office, the company can and should require password protections and secure networks. Policy should be established about leaving sensitive papers, financial information, etc. on home printers, etc., and the proper and secure disposal of company paperwork or materials. And how should the employee communicate during “remote office hours”? Is a separate phone line, different ring tone for forwarded calls, or dedicated cell phone required?

Company Liabilities: You are responsible for the safety of the workplace, even when it is a home office, so you have the legal right to have the workspace defined and to inspect and approve it as a suitable environment. Also, put a formal policy into place prohibiting work-related texting or cell phone use while driving. You are responsible for the employee if they are engaged in work while driving a vehicle.

The bottom line is this: tomorrow’s worker is going to have flexible alternatives to your brick-and-mortar workplace, and given the cost of infrastructure, teleworking is definitely an attractive option. However, go into the transition with solid H.R. policy and the right partners to forge the most secure technology transition.

All this talk about people being sued has given me a headache. Let’s have some happy talk next week, when I’ll interview Donna Gray, the 2013 inductee into the Hall of Fame Award for the U.S. Awards and Recognition Industry. We’ll learn her best advice for how to celebrate workplace and community engagements to shine the light on everything you are doing right!

About Jody Glynn Patrick

Jody is President of Glynn Patrick & Associates, which provides management consulting, executive coaching and strategic planning services. She is Publisher Emeritus of In Business magazine, which she published for 17 years. Selected as the “U.S. Business Journalist of the Year” in 2007 in Washington, DC, by the U.S. Small Business Administration, Jody has been a business reporter, editor, radio talk show host , and has won other state and national journalism awards. At the same time, she has helped corporate clients grow their businesses -- the basis for her practical coaching advice here. She also was the 2005 Athena Award recipient for her leadership role in mentoring other professional women. Jody will be talking with you weekly on TDS’ blog to share her insights and tips from the C-Suite perspective. Follow on G+.

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