COVID-19 ‘Lockdown’ Mandates, Employees Working Remotely, and California’s Law Governing Worker Expense Reimbursement

COVID-19 ‘Lockdown’ Mandates, Employees Working Remotely, and California’s Law Governing Worker Expense Reimbursement
COVID-19 'Lockdown' Mandates, Employees Working Remotely, and California's Law Governing Worker Expense Reimbursement

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 created a lot of seismic shifts in the work of work. One of those was the explosion of remote work, especially during the periods when governmental "lockdown" orders were in place. The fallout of all this is still being felt, including in the courts, where workers are seeking relief for expense compensation they allege their employers illegally denied them. If you think your employer has improperly denied you the compensation you were owed under the law -- whether as a result of remote work or some other reason -- a knowledgeable San Mateo employment law lawyer can help you seek relief.

The first of two California cases to address this issue hit the courts last year. In that action, the worker was a senior software development engineer for Amazon. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020 and the government imposed shelter-in-place orders, the employer ordered the engineer to continue working, transitioning him from in-office work to remote work.

The illegal flaw, according to the engineer's complaint, was that Amazon failed to reimburse him for several expenses he incurred as a result of his remote work. These expenses included things like space, electricity, and home internet costs.

The employer argued that it couldn't be liable for illegally failing to reimburse the engineer's expenses because the government, not Amazon, erected the mandates that required remote work.

The Employer's Lack of Responsibility for the Lockdowns Was Irrelevant

The trial court refused to dismiss the claim, pointing out that the question of who was responsible for the conditions requiring remote work was irrelevant to the question of whether or not the worker was entitled to reimbursement. According to the judge, the relevant California statutory section -- Labor Code Section 2802(a) -- says that what "matters is whether Williams incurred those expenses 'in direct consequence of the discharge of his or her duties, or of his or her obedience to the directions of the employer.'” Even if the employer was not the "but-for" cause of the necessity for remote work, the law may still demand expense reimbursement if the worker demonstrated that all of the elements of Section 2802(a) had been met.

One of those elements is necessity and, according to the trial court, the engineer properly pled that element. The engineer's job required him to compose design documents and go over them with various teams. He was also required to review software code for other developers and make sure he was on call for additional obligations. Fulfilling these duties necessarily required physical space, electricity, and internet capability.

Furthermore, the law doesn't require that the worker previously made an explicit request for reimbursement. The standard, rather, requires only that the employer knew (or reasonably should have known) that workers like the engineer were incurring the expenses. Amazon, as a major tech employer, clearly knew or had reason to know that software engineers like the plaintiff "who worked from home during the pandemic were incurring basic costs related to that work."

The engineer's federal lawsuit here in Northern California isn't the only one of its kind. In state court in Los Angeles County, a senior financial analyst for Fox Broadcasting brought similar claims.

Like the Amazon engineer, the Fox analyst began working remotely when the government issued shelter-in-place orders in 2020. Like the engineer, she incurred expenses for things like home internet and electricity. Furthermore, like Amazon, Fox allegedly did not reimburse the analyst for those expenses.

These cases make for a strong reminder of that California law provides an array of protections for workers, both on-site and remote. The diligent San Mateo wage and hour attorneys at Galine, Frye, Fitting & Frangos, LLP have decades of experience helping California workers protect themselves and vindicate their rights under this state's laws. Contact one of our helpful attorneys at 650-345-8484 or through our website to find out what we can do for you.



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