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Who pays for the toilet paper? The big questions of the work-from-home era

Wed, 7th Oct 2020 07:00

* Working from home seen as a lasting legacy of COVID-19

* Unions launch campaign to compensate all home workers

* Employers say "bonuses" don't make sense amid a crisis

* Countries across Europe considering remote-working rules

By Toby Sterling

AMSTERDAM, Oct 7 (Reuters) - 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, is your bosses.

And how much? About two euros ($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 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 363
euro COVID-19 "bonus" this year, starting in March when the
country went into lockdown.

Of course, the 2 euros 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.

FROM SPAIN TO BRITAIN

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; while 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 labour 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 paint-maker AkzoNobel's factories and
Heineken's breweries. But most bank workers, insurance company
employees, call centre staffers and many others have been
working from home since March. Around 80% of Dutch workers are
covered by collective labour 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?

However, as ever, there's two sides to the story. And bosses
argue extra payments make little sense at a time when the
coronavirus crisis has floored the economy.

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
on daily commutes.

While workers should be compensated for home office costs,
that will be offset by cuts to their compensation for lease cars
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.

($1 = 0.8490 euros)
(Reporting by Toby Sterling
Editing by Pravin Char)

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