Has Your Company Been Reimbursing its Employees for Personal Cell Phone Use on the Job?

by Jennifer A. Grady, Esq.

cell phone 2Since January 1, 2016, California employers must reimburse employees for use of their personal cell phones for mandatory business purposes.  (Cochran v. Schwan’s Home Service, Inc). This ruling affects millions of employers who must update their company policies in order to stay compliant with the new law.  While this law has been on the books for over two years now, it appears as though many companies have not addressed this law or made it part of their employee reimbursement practices.  Is your company reimbursing its employees for their cell phone call and data usage?  Read below for policy suggestions.

What does this mean for employers?

According to Cochran, California employers must indemnify employees for all “necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence of the discharge of his or her duties, or of his or her obedience to the directions of the employer.” Unfortunately, even four years after this case was decided, the exact measure of reimbursement is still somewhat unclear.  While the court in Cochran determined that employers must consistently reimburse employees a “reasonable percentage,” it did not define what is reasonable. Furthermore, the employer must reimburse the employee even if the employee does not incur any additional expense on his or her cell phone/data plan as the result of using the device for work-related purposes (i.e. if the client has unlimited talk, text, and data plans).

This law is now reflected in California Labor Code section 2082:

“An employer shall indemnify his or her employee for all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence of the discharge of his or her duties, or of his or her obedience to the directions of the employer, even though unlawful, unless the employee, at the time of obeying the directions, believed them to be unlawful.”

Plaintiffs bringing a claim for their employer’s failure to reimburse their expenses will also be entitled to recover attorney’s fees and costs for bringing an action against their employer.

Employers: be sure to show employee cell phone and expense reimbursement on employee wage statements/pay stubs.

Examples of Reimbursement Policies

cell phone billThe California law rules out implementing a simple flat rate, or a maximum amount of work-related cell phone expenses. That means employers must consider adopting new reimbursement policies to ensure that they remain compliant with California laws.

For example: An employee is a salesperson in the field and uses a cell phone for business-related purposes. The employer has several options to remain compliant with the reimbursement law:

  • Pay the employee’s entire cell phone bill;
  • Pay a “reasonable” portion of the cell phone bill as determined by the employee’s submitted phone bill and itemized call/data use;
  • Pay a flat rate that is a reasonable estimate of charges. In the event that charges exceed the flat rate, allow the employee to submit charges for reimbursement.

What if an employee has an unlimited amount of minutes, texting, and data in their cell phone plan?

Even if an employee has a personal cell phone plan with unlimited minutes, or otherwise did not incur any special or extra expense for work-related purposes, the employer is still liable for the business related phone charges. This is because the court’s reasoning focused on the benefit to the employer instead of the actual expense to the employee. The employer would otherwise be passing its operating expenses onto the employee, and receive a windfall.

The Cochran Court’s Analysis

CapitolThe California Court of Appeals Cochran court made it very clear that employers shall not receive a windfall:

“If an employee is required to make work-related calls on a personal cell phone, then he or she is incurring an expense for purposes of [California Labor Code] section 2802. It does not matter whether the phone bill is paid for by a third person, or at all. In other words, it is no concern to the employer that the employee may pass on the expense to a family member or friend, or to a carrier that has to then write off a loss. It is irrelevant whether the employee changed plans to accommodate worked-related cell phone usage.

Also, the details of the employee’s cell phone plan do not factor into the liability analysis. Not only does our interpretation prevent employers from passing on operating expenses, it also prevents them from digging into the private lives of their employees to unearth how they handle their finances vis-à-vis family, friends and creditors.” To show liability under section 2802, an employee need only show that he or she was required to use a personal cell phone to make work-related calls, and he or she was not reimbursed.

What Would a Legal Claim Look Like?

An employee may make a claim for expenses that were not reimbursed through a demand letter, lawsuit, or labor claim. As an example, say that since the law was enacted on January 1, 2016, an employee used his cell phone on the job to answer emails, make phone calls, and check on status orders.   He used his cell phone 75% of the time for work purposes.  If his cell phone bill on average was $120.00-130.00 per month (average $125.00), at 75%, that would be $93.75 per month for 22 months.  The employee would therefore entitled to $2,062.50, plus interest and attorney’s fees, for failure to provide this reimbursement over that period of time.

However, if the employee used his cell phone at work only 10% of the time, the reimbursement would be $275.00 ($125 x 10% x 22 months).

Security Issues

When employees use their own cell phones for business purposes, it creates additional intellectual property, data security, and liability risks for the employers. Accordingly, Employers may want to provide phones and electronic devices to its employees so that it can have greater control over security and use of Company data.

Employers may want to balance company security versus employee convenience. Often, employees do not want to carry two phones and opt to use their own personal cell phones, rather than carrying a work phone on their person as well. In this instance, employers need to consider what company information the employee will have on his or her phone, and how to protect that information.  It may be worthwhile to consult a IT professional who can advise how to maintain the employee’s privacy while protecting company information and potential trade secrets, along with co-worker and client information.

To ensure that your business remains compliant with this law, consult a licensed California employment attorney.

About The Grady Firm, P.C.

JGrady Firm-Logo-2016The Grady Firm attorneys act as outside legal counsel to Human Resources Departments of expanding companies within California, and helps aggrieved employees recover compensation for wrongful termination and labor law violations. To schedule a complimentary 15-minute consultation with The Grady Firm’s employment attorneys, call (323) 450-9010, or fill out a Contact Request Form.  The Grady Firm attorney can update your company’s policies/Employee Handbook, and explain the detailed nuances of the new law. Employee Handbooks should be updated annually to reflect the latest changes in the law.

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