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Some of your work from home questions answered

It's been several weeks since the transition. We're still trying to figure it out. We asked a business attorney about all sorts of things.

MINNEAPOLIS — Those of us who are lucky enough to be working from home have been doing this for several weeks now. As we settle into this change, many of us are running into questions involving privacy, workers' compensation and expenses. 

We asked Small Business attorney Davis Senseman to make sense of some questions we had.

If my company paid for lunch and snacks normally, can I still expense those from home?

"Unless your employer has notified you that anything has changed about their reimbursement policies or what you can and can't expense, those policies should still be exactly the same as they were when you were working in the office," Senseman said. However, they explained the employer does reserve the right to make amends to those polices as they see fit.

This was the case at Google. CNBC and Marketwatch reported that Google announced it will no longer be allowing food or fitness expenses while employees are working from home.

Senseman added the employer should notify employees of any policy changes.

If I am injured while working from home, can I apply for workers' compensation?

The short answer for this question is yes. Senseman said this comes from a court case several years ago in which an employee was working from home and injured himself after going downstairs to grab a cup of coffee. Munson v. Wilmar/Interline Brands was the case that eventually led to some guidelines when it comes to workers' compensation in the State of Minnesota.

"The Workers' Comp Appeals Court - they extended this doctrine of personal comfort," Senseman said. "That's the idea that you don't stop being eligible for workers' comp because you got up from your desk to go to the bathroom or to get a cup of coffee or to take your lunch break. Those are all part of the job. So, they said, that still applies when you're at home."

Senseman did say a lot of the cases are scrutinized on a case-by-case basis, and that there are some common-sense boundaries when it comes to what defines a work day. 

"It does need to be within a time when work is normally performed, and you need to be in furtherance of your work," Senseman said. 

What about chronic pain that comes from bad work station set-ups?

"Most employers probably haven't thought about, 'what kind of set up are you sitting in all day when I ask you to be on these Zoom calls or do this work?' in a few weeks or months, we may see a lot of folks who say they have chronic back issues or neck issues," Senseman said. "So that's something employers should think about. It's probably going to be a lot more cost effective to buy your employee a $200 chair than have to deal with an ongoing issue."

What if I test positive for the coronavirus? Can I get compensated for that?

That depends on what kind of work you do.

"Under one of the governor's executive orders here in Minnesota, there are certain types of jobs, medical professionals, first responders, folks like that - it is presumed, if they're interacting with folks who are positive for coronavirus all day long - there's a presumption that it happened at work," Senseman explained. 

They said as things open back up, more questions will arise regarding employer-provided PPE and store regulations for customer-facing jobs when it comes to what "qualifies" for workers' compensation and COVID-19. 

What are my rights when it comes to privacy? Can my boss check on me to make sure I am working the whole time?

"There's no reasonable expectation of privacy on work-provided equipment," Senseman said. However, they explained the employer cannot ask you to do things like keeping your camera on if you are using your own computer.

"It's also quite creepy," Senseman said. "I would strongly advise employers - trust your people."

Can I expense my utilities and Internet expenses since I have technically created a "home office?"

"I think it's definitely something to ask an employer about submitting it as an expense," Senseman said. "If they didn't have a policy for it, they may say deduct it on your taxes. It's going to be really interesting because home office expenses have always been one of those things that accountants really warn you about because there are really rigid rules about them."

Senseman said they suspect companies and maybe even the government might roll out adapted rules in the near future.

"Hopefully the IRS is going to give a little bit of guidance about [expenses] - if your employer covered it, here's how it works, if they didn't here's how it works," they said. "We probably do have a lot of employees purchasing what they need that if they were in their office space it would have been available."

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The state of Minnesota has set up a hotline for general questions about coronavirus at 651-201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903, available 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

There is also a data portal online at mn.gov/covid19.