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Your Legal Relationship With Your Employer in a Remote Workplace

When you work from home, how does the legal relationship between you and your employer change? By Jill Goodwin | Digital Exclusives 2021

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Working from home was on the rise long before COVID-19 turned the world upside down, but now that it’s the “new normal,” you might be wondering if it changes your legal relationship with your employer. The short answer is “not really”—but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few factors you should be aware of.

What Doesn’t Change

When it comes to the legal relationship between you and your employer, your mutual obligations remain as they were in the office when working from home. The letter and the spirit of the law do not confine the rights and responsibilities of employees and employers to the four walls of a physical office.

Even though you’re working in your own space, your talents and time belong to your employer in the same way they did in the office. All of your employee responsibilities still apply. The foundation of remote work is the understanding that you will still perform your duties and follow instructions to the best of your ability without the direct supervision of a team leader or manager.

What Does Change

However, not having direct supervision doesn’t mean that there won’t be any form of supervision when you work from home. Writing for Forbes about monitoring employees who work from home, employment lawyer Tom Spiggle says that while some forms of monitoring are legal, they can also be quite invasive and potentially unethical.

Employee monitoring tactics can include using webcams, reviewing accessed files, taking screenshots, tracking internet activity, and monitoring typing. GPS may be used to monitor physical location and computer idle time may be tracked. Spiggle explains that your employer can legally monitor you when using their equipment and network, and they can often even monitor you on your own device if they notify you and you’ve given prior permission.

As far-reaching and Orwellian as this sounds, it’s likely not something to be too concerned about—provided you’re working as you would in the office. Spiggle notes that monitoring seldom happens in real time, and that archived information about employee behavior is usually accessed only in cases of poor performance, an internal complaint, or lawsuit.

The possibility of employee monitoring highlights your responsibility to do your work to the best of your ability, no matter your physical location. What about your employer’s responsibilities?

Your Employer’s Obligations

First and foremost, your employer has the responsibility of paying you for the work you do. They are also responsible for making sure that reasonable expenses of yours are covered and that you can work without fear of harassment.

Nigel F. Telman et al. discusses these responsibilities in the National Law Review article, “Responding to Coronavirus: Illinois Specific Considerations for Employers.” On the subject of remuneration, some employers may consider reducing the pay rate for employees who work from home. While that is an unlikely prospect for CPAs, it helps to know that the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act (IWPCA) prohibits pay rate changes from being made prior to providing employees with written notice. The act also prevents changes from being made retroactively, which means work you’ve already done must be paid at the regular rate.

You’re likely to incur some expenses when working from home, and according to Telman, your employer is responsible for reimbursing you—at least for reasonable expenses. The IWPCA states that your employer must reimburse you for “all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee within the employee’s scope of employment and directly related to services performed for the employer.” The act elaborates that your employer has some discretion in determining the extent to which they reimburse you for these work-from-home expenses, so don’t run out to furnish a new home office without first discussing it with your manager.

On anti-harassment policies for remote workers, Telman references the Illinois Human Rights Act’s expanded definition of harassment, which came into effect at the beginning of 2020. Harassment is defined as unwelcome conduct based on someone’s “actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, age, sex, marital status, order of protection status, disability, military status, sexual orientation, pregnancy, unfavorable discharge from military service, or citizenship status.” Harassment creates a hostile environment and interferes with the target's work.

Importantly, the Illinois Human Rights Act recognizes that the environment in which you work is not limited to the office itself. Employers still have the same responsibility to prevent harassment of remote workers in a virtual workplace.

All in all, there are no dramatic changes in your legal relationship with your employer when you work from home. As long as you strive to maintain the same high standard of work, you can ensure working from home works for everyone.

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