DEAR CARRIE: I work for a large insurance company in Manhattan. Many departments have had informal work-at-home policies since superstorm Sandy, when our offices were flooded. The company is now instituting a formal work-at-home program, since we will be moving to a smaller space with no personal desks. So we will be required to work from home several days a week. We have to sign an agreement laying out the rules for working at home.
I have questions about the legality of two aspects of the agreement: Can the company legally conduct surprise inspections of our home workspaces? And if company equipment such as a laptop is stolen from our homes, can our employer make us replace it at our own cost? — Home, Sweet Office
DEAR HOME: As to your first point, your employer can conduct surprise inspections if it has your written permission, said employment attorney Sheree Donath, a partner at the law firm of Cory J. Rosenbaum in Uniondale.
“In order to have such right, the employer must obtain the consent of the employee and does so in a written telecommuter agreement,” Donath said.
Though the inspections seem intrusive, companies have reasons for inspecting their employees’ home offices, said Donath, who noted the following from the website of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which oversees workplace safety:
“Employers are responsible in home worksites for hazards caused by materials, equipment, or work processes which the employer provides or requires to be used in an employee’s home.”
Yet the agency doesn’t inspect home offices and doesn’t require companies to do so, she said.
But employers conduct inspections because they may still be liable for unsafe working conditions in an employee’s home, as well as any workers’ compensation claims, Donath said. “For this reason, many employers include in agreements with their employees that they have the right to inspect the home.”
The inspections would be illegal if a company uses them to target a certain group of employees, she said. For example, “it cannot require all women employees to agree to allow surprise inspections of their home-based offices and not require the same of men.”
As with any agreement, an employee may be able to request more satisfactory terms, Donath said. “The employee is free to negotiate the inspections with the employer; so maybe instead of surprise inspections, the employer will agree to biannual inspections.”
Or she said the company might agree to provide the employee with a packet of information, including a checklist of the employer’s health and safety concerns, that the employee can use as a guide to resolve any problems.
Regarding your question about whether your employer can make you pay for company equipment stolen from your home, state law generally prohibits employers from deducting such costs from employees’ wages and from demanding separate payments to cover such costs. Your employer may be able to fire you for such a loss, but it can’t take that cost out of your wages.
Donath notes that such losses may be covered under your homeowner insurance policy.