A reader writes:
I’m the office manager for a pretty small office. We hired a receptionist a few months ago who’s really great, always willing to jump in and do whatever needs doing without me having to hold her hand (or even ask sometimes).
She runs a lot of errands for us–until she came to me recently, I didn’t realize how much it adds up. She does mail runs and gets our boss’s lunch every day, but the boss is always sending her after this or that besides. Two or three times a week, she drives to a store 15 miles away. She came to me recently because the boss won’t comp her for mileage–when she asked, she said he looked at her like she had three heads and told her she’s still on the clock even though she’s away from the office. But the receptionist showed me a spreadsheet of all her trips during the month of June, and at roughly .15 a mile (depending on gas prices), it added up to over $60. She only makes minimum wage to begin with and gets 32 hours a week.
I told her that I’d see what I could do but that since our boss had already balked, that might unfortunately be nothing. I know your advice is usually that this is the job and you have to decide whether you want it on those terms. But after I got home yesterday, I thought about it and realized that the boss is basically cutting her pay to below minimum. If she can only work there if she makes these runs, and has to pay out of her own pocket, even one mile puts her whole week below minimum wage. Am I right about this? I’d like to talk to the boss about it anyway because this woman deserves some reimbursement, but I’d be doubly concerned if we were actually doing something illegal here.
Please do talk to your boss about it. It’s not reasonable or fair to ask your receptionist to pay the business’s expenses out of her own pocket.
And your boss’s argument that the receptionist is still on the clock even though she’s away from the office doesn’t address the point at all; it doesn’t matter if she’s on or off the clock, because the point is that she’s incurring expenses in service of the business. You might point out to him that it’s very common for businesses to reimburse for mileage, and that most use the IRS mileage reimbursement rate.
As for the legal side of this … Yes, he should be worried there too. While there’s no law requiring reimbursement of business-related expenses (with the exception of some states, like California), if the non-reimbursement takes an employee below minimum wage, there very well could be a violation of the minimum wage requirements. In fact, there was recently a lawsuit over this exact issue: In 2009, Domino’s Pizza delivery drivers sued the chain, alleging that they were deprived of the federal minimum wage as a result of the company’s failure to fully reimburse them for vehicle-related expenses. I can’t find a final outcome to the case yet and think it’s still pending, but given that the case has been found viable enough to make it through four years circulating in the courts, does your boss really want to mess with that?
But really, the overall principle here to take to your boss is this: You don’t ask employees to pay the costs of running the business of their own pocket … particularly not someone already the lowest salary level in the office.