should my employer pay for my cell phone?

A reader writes:

At what point should you ask your boss to pay for your cell phone, or give you a company phone? I am a personal assistant to a realtor, and I’m starting to wonder if I should ask her to pay my monthly cell phone bill. Not only do her clients call me on my cell when they cannot reach her, but I also am occasionally instructed to text her clients using my phone. As you probably suspect, there are no “business hours” that clients are given to call within — they call anytime, day or night. My cell phone number is also on the company roster and is given out by the receptionist to anyone who calls and asks for it. At this point, I believe my phone is less “personal” and more “business.”

What’s your advice on this? Should I ask for my number to be removed from the roster and only used for my boss to contact me, or since the number is already out there, should I ask her to pay the bill? Or is this an expected expense as a personal assistant that I should just suck up?

There are varying opinions on this, but I tend to think that your employer should pay for whatever portion of your cell phone bill that you wouldn’t be incurring if it weren’t for your job. So if you have unlimited minutes and you’d have that plan even if you didn’t work there, then you’re not losing any money and there’s no reason to ask your employer to pay. But if you’re going over your minutes or switching to a higher plan to accommodate the work calls, your employer should pay the difference. (I feel the same about things like Internet service; if you work at home but you’d have that same Internet service plan regardless, it doesn’t make sense to expect your employer to pay for it, because that’s a cost you’d be incurring on your own. In other words, the question to ask is, “What portion of this cost would I not have if not for my job?” Obviously this doesn’t work for things like commuting expenses or work clothes, but it does work for things like technology.)

On the other hand, if you’re expected to be available to clients at all hours, then I do think that you have an argument for asking your company to pay for the phone regardless. That’s enough of an intrusion into your off hours that it’s a reasonable request for you to make, as just kind of making up for the inconvenience of dealing with phone calls from clients at 11:00 at night.

Now, you didn’t ask about this, but have you considered getting a Google Voice number for your office to give out, so that you can set it to send calls straight to voicemail at certain hours? Unless your office truly requires you to answer calls at any hour of the day, this might be worth doing to preserve your time off.

{ 68 comments… read them below }

  1. Noah*

    If your telephone is being routinely used for business, it is not unreasonable to ask for the company to add your phone to the corporate account. Another option would be a stipend. My company provides either a $10, $20, or $45 stipend depending on how often your phone is used for business purposes: if you are eligible for the $45 stipend you can have your phone added to the corporate AT&T account.

      1. Noah*

        Good point! We give people 4 weeks post-termination or resignation to move the number to an individual account. Only downside is you’re stuck with AT&T and whatever contract that line is under. We let them keep the phone though.

      2. Anonymous*

        **Ms. Manager, I would love your advise! My first visit to your site. I am loving it. My fiance’ left his place of employment for a better job. The previous employer owns his cell# & pd. for his cell phone usage under their Co. name. Actually, it was under another employees name who still works there. All of the companies cell phones are under her name for a reason I do not know. They will not give him his cell ph.#. The cell acct. is w/ AT&T. He has many personal ph.#’s of his relatives, etc. in the contacts on the phone. How do you advise that he gets his old cell ph.# bk. from them? Respectfully, Kathy

        1. Jamie*

          I’m not Alison – but can I chime in on this one?

          He can’t – it’s not his number. His former company has zero obligation to let him keep it, and in fact, would be unwise to do so since business contacts who call it should still get someone who works there.

          He needs to get a new number and let his contacts know.

  2. Anonymous*

    Maybe it’s different in the USA, but in Australia most employment contracts have clauses relating to the reimbursement of reasonable business expenses incurred by the employee, providing they provide sufficient evidence. With previous organisations I’ve worked for where I used my personal phone and wasn’t provided one, I would highlight the business calls in the bill and submit an expense claim.

    If there is a high level of business calls, maybe ask for a company phone, or ask for the whole bill to be paid.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If the costs are itemized, definitely. The problem is when they’re not because you have a plan that gives you 500 minutes a month (or whatever) and you aren’t going over that. That’s a cost that remains the same whether you make business calls or not.

      1. Esra*

        It seems like it should still be reasonable to ask for some partial compensation in that case, because if you have a limited amount of minutes, then you are using them for business instead of say, conversations with Grandma or whatever.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          If you’re going over your limit, then yes. But if you’re talking on personal calls as you always would, and not be charged for going over your limit, then you’re not actually incurring any additional cost (or limiting your own use).

          1. Esra*

            I guess. As a cellphone-only user, if I know I’m brushing up against my limit, I’d avoid making personal calls to accommodate the professional ones. It seems strange to me that you would have to go over your limit and pay to prove to your employer that they are eating up too many minutes.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Well, they’re only eating up too many minutes if you go over your limit, right? Otherwise it has no impact on you. You should just use your phone as you normally would, and your employer should pay for any added cost that works calls cause you to incur.

              (That assumes they’ll pay, of course, which they should.)

          2. JD*

            My thoughts are opposite of yours. If the phone cost is an expense that the business would incur in the event you did not have your personal phone to use, then of course the company should share that cost.

      2. Anon*

        In this case, I disagree. Especially for cellphone bills where the numbers called and minutes used can be seen line by line, I think it would be easy to figure out that the company is using whatever percentage of your usage in any given month and then ask them to reimburse you for that percentage of the bill. Even if you’d have that phone regardless, it’s still your company using your personal item. Even if you have unlimited minutes/texts, if the company expects you to be on call and doesn’t provide you with a phone then they should reimburse you for your expense. I think it’s more of a usage issue – if they use more than 10% of your personal consumption (totally arbitrary), then I expect them to compensate you.

        It’s an extreme example, but the same as a cellphone: if my company starting hosting team meetings in my dinng room every day I would expect compensation for their use of my personal property. I have to live somewhere, so I’m going to incur those costs no matter what – so if my company started expecting me to open my home for clients or coworker’s use as part of my business duties then they should compensate me. Same as a cellphone, in my opinion. ;)

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I think that’s a legitimate perspective (just different from mine). I’m asking “what costs are you incurring as a result of this?” and you’re asking “how much money is the company saving as a result of this (not having to buy me a business cell, or whatever)?” Both are reasonable ways to approach it.

        2. Anonymous_J*

          I completely agree with this.

          I am a cell phone-only user, and I am also a small business owner. Most months, my business is conducted completely online; however, every once in a while, I do use my phone for business. In months where I use it for business more than, say, 30% of the time, I write off the cost of my minutes (I’m a pay-as-you-go user.) I expense MAYBE three months out of a given year.

          I definitely think a middle ground could be found–assuming, as Alison mentioned–that the employer will pay.

        3. KayDay*

          Exactly. To me the difference is when the company seems to be taking advantage of an employee’s personal property to get the job done, instead of incurring necessary business expenses. There’s no really hard and fast way to define this, but I think it is true in this case. The fact that this number is being given out to people outside the company by people other than the OP is what gives me this feeling in this case.

          I do understand where Alison is coming from–this is how I feel if it’s a voluntary expense (e.g. I choose to work from home) or if it’s an occasional expense (e.g. if I travel three times per year and use my cell phone).

  3. karen*

    If these calls are costing you extra it is reasonable to talk with your boss about a reimbursement arrangement. I don’t have one in place now, but my boss and I have discussed that when my personal cell phone is up for a new plan and phone finding a way for the company to defray the cost and upgrading to an iphone. The reason for this is that I run the social media for the company and we frequently go offsite to events and meetings that are interesting to our followers and I currently have no way of sharing that information on my old school cell phone. As cool as they are, I know I don’t need an iphone to live my life separate from work, so if it is a necessity of the job, then they have to provide it.

  4. Mike C.*

    Look, if the phone is being used for work, they need to provide you with one. My fiancee works for a large cell phone company, and company accounts are set up to be trivially easy to add new employee accounts.

    Unless you have a very good reason, you need to keep business and personal stuff apart, and they need to stop using your personal resources to make money. It’s a business and they need to pay the normal expenses that come with operating a business.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The problem is that it goes back to my question: Are these work calls causing her to incur expenses she wouldn’t otherwise be incurring? If so, they need to pay for them. If not, it’s murkier. Many people don’t want to have to carry 2 cell phones and so choose to use their personal phone for work purposes.

      1. JD*

        If the company is getting the use of your personal phone for free, then they need to share that cost, or provide you with a phone.

    2. Anonymous*

      If she asks them for a company phone, they might provide one, and then she needs to carry two phones around. Perhaps the company phone is harder to use than her personal phone. And it still wouldn’t save her any money: she’d still be paying money for her personal line.

      The only way a company phone will improve her financial situation is the one AAM set out: if the company use is causing her to pay fees beyond what her “personal” package costs her. And in such a case, it’s not unreasonable to show someone your phone records, say “this is how many minutes I spent on work calls, this is how many minutes I went over on my plan, and this is how much money it has cost me. Can you please reimburse me for this on my next paycheck?”

  5. Erica B*

    I used to work in real estate (in MA) and it was expected that we have our own cell phones. As a RE agent in most offices, you are an independent contractor, and if you are a PA for your broker I assume you are licensed, so you can access MLS and whatnot. In which case if you are using your phone for work you can deduct it on your taxes when you file as a business expense. I would talk to an accountant about the details with this because it’s not 100% business you technically can’t claim 100% of the bill.

    Allison’s Google voice idea is a great one.. you can even set it to call your broker’s phones too! Lol, that’s what she gets for ignoring the calls or whatever. You can also set do not disturb hours on it which during the off hours the calls go right to voicemail. You can set different messages, it’s great and wish it were available when I was an agent. I never minded my clients or co workers to contact me with my real number, but if someone else’s clients were constantly contacting me, I would be highly aggravated. RE is a relationship business and your broker is apparently not good with them.

    If your office offers company phones then it wouldn’t hurt to ask for one if you are uncomfortable using yours for her clients. If they don’t have them, don’t be surprised and assume you are SOL

  6. KayDay*

    Honestly, I think if you are being *required* to use your phone for a significant amount of time and have the number be available to the public/customers, even if it’s not adding an extra cost (e.g. if you have an unlimited plan), I don’t think it would be unreasonable for your company to cover an appropriate percentage of the cost, such as 20% of your bill for 20% of use for work. I would NOT expect them to pay the whole bill. It sounds like they are taking advantage of the fact that nearly everyone now has cell phones with high limit/unlimited plans and not getting needed company phones. (Obviously, I’m not saying that they are obligated to do this, but I think it’s very reasonable to ask.)

    If they won’t agree to pay part of your bill, then I would try for the Google number.

    btw, I had a part time job at a real estate office a long time ago and my boss provide people with my personal cell number and used it in official business correspondance as if it was a business number. I thought it was really weird at the time; now I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a real estate thing?

  7. AshRad*

    Hi everyone, Im OP. Thanks for all the great responses, and thanks AAM for replying to my email! I think I tend to agree with AAM, and over the next month or so Im going to monitor exactly how many minutes/texts I use on my cell phone for business. I do NOT have an unlimited plan, and I HAVE gone over my minutes because of business calls and have had to pay fees for it.

    I think my problem is that I do not work for a corporation/company – I am the only, part time and unlicensed employee of one woman. She does not have company phones to provide me with and there is no company stipend for this. I do not even have an employment contract (VA is a “right to work” state); I was hired through word-of-mouth and never even did an interview. If I worked for a major corporation, I would definitely expect them to pay my bill or provide me with a phone. I really like Karen’s idea – when my plan comes up again, I will have a discussion with my boss about changing my plan to an unlimited one and her paying the difference (between my old plan and the new one). The major red flag I can visualize, though, is if I miss her call one morning and hear the dreaded “I pay for you phone, so you have to pick up day or night!” I feel like if I ask her to pay for part of my bill, she will take advantage of it.

      1. Joey*

        This! I bet you are non-exempt as a personal assistant. If calls are more than a few minutes you should be getting paid for being on the phone in addition to the stipend. You’d be surprised how quickly it adds up.

        1. Jamie*

          Yep – if hourly start putting in those hours as being on the clock.

          If you have a smartphone there are even apps for tracking hours worked.

  8. Gayle Laakmann McDowell*

    I agree with the Google Voice suggestion – I was actually going to suggest it myself! :)

    It’ll also remove any charges from texting and separate out your work and personal calls (so you know which is which). You can also set it to forward to your land line (if you have one) and your cell phone, so that you can answer with whichever one is near.

    In fact, your boss should LOVE the Google idea. If you leave / quit / are on vacation, you can forward the number back to your boss (or the new assistant).

  9. Anonymous*

    I have a quick question then, if I may ask it here since it’s fairly relative.

    My supervisors rarely call my fellow employees; in fact they rely on anyone else to text message another person to get a message across (changing shifts, where are you?, etc.). I know my fellow employees have text messaging plans – otherwise their phone bills rival the national debt with all of the text messaging they do even at work. I don’t have a text messaging plan. I don’t do enough to warrant it so I am charged per message. How can I politely refuse from now on to text message my coworkers? It doesn’t happen often, but since text messaging is not a part of the job, I don’t see why I should have to shell out the money. I’m sure I can’t ask my boss – “You want me to text him/her? That’ll be 50 cents please!”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      How about just saying, “I don’t have a text messaging plan so I can’t?”

      Alternately, if you work somewhere where expense reimbursements are routine, you could just submit this portion of your bill for reimbursement

      1. Anonymous*

        Saying I Can’t is insubordination. You just say you don’t have that plan on your phone. That is refusal and grounds for termination.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Saying “I can’t” in that context isn’t insubordination; it’s the logical conclusion of that sentence. Any manager who considered that insubordinate would be ridiculous.

            1. Emily*

              Ask a Manager – anyone with half a brain knows that you’re lying if you say you don’t have a text plan. Saying yes is a slippery slope to employer abuse of the privilege, and saying no sets you on the path to termination. You are labeled “difficult.”

          1. Anonymous*

            Also, I find that companies generally double state any policy to make it feasible for their own needs. I agree that any manager that would say that is ridiculous, but there are good and bad managers out there. Any time your manager requests something and you fail to comply with the reasonable request is insubordination. Asking you to send a message is a reasonable request. However telling him you can’t is being insubordinate. Telling him you don’t have the service is being truthful. Maybe the manager would want someone who can.

  10. Jamie*

    This is a huge pet peeve of mine. I agree with Alison regarding the employer paying expenses above and beyond what you would incur anyway – but for me it goes beyond the minutes and I would include inconvenience.

    For example, when I was using my own cell for work I was unable to loan it to one of my kids if they had a problem with their phone. It’s my phone, so anything business related which limited what I could do with it irritated me.

    Personally, I think if companies expect personnel to be constantly available via cell then they should give a company phone for business use only. A call once in a blue moon is one thing, that’s the same as someone from work calling you at home, imo. But if you’re required to conduct business and have availability at all hours the expense should be theirs.

    Then again, I think if a company has 24/7 availability in it’s culture than they should pay accordingly…but unfortunately the mind set toward employees never being off the clock doesn’t seem to come with an offset of more money.

    1. KellyK*

      You have a good point about the inconvenience and the loss of control of something that’s yours. It does make sense that if the company is handing out your cell phone number and would have issues with you lending your cell to someone else that you should get some reimbursement for that. It’s a little tougher to quantify, but it would definitely be reasonable to ask for.

  11. Tara*

    I too used to work as a real estate assistant. Most real estate agents have a single phone number that goes on signs, websites, business cards, you name it! My old boss had a phone we all referred to as “the bat phone” and each employee was given weekend duty and evening duty with the phone. In the event she could not answer her phone or didnt want to, she forwarded her calls to the bat phone number. The receptionist also knew this phone number was only for certain calls and would forward it appropriatly. Perhaps your boss could get one for the purpose of contacting you and other “emergencies” (Its ALWAYS an emergency in real estate haha) Then when she has to be out of pocket she can forward her own calls to the “bat phone”. No technology, just a basic free phone with a basic plan. If she goes over the minutes she will see how often these after hours emergencies are popping up and (added bonus) realize how extra important her assistant is!

  12. Anonymous*

    If you incur costs on the job that is not reimbursed by your company you could potentially file it on your tax forms (schedule A or B, I believe). However, I am not too sure of the circumstances, but maybe someone with more knowledge could answer.

  13. anon*

    True. But you get nothing unless your business expenses go over a certain threshold. I think it has to be larger than a certain percentage of your income.

    The point is that if you spend $50 per month on business calls, you can claim $600 on your tax returns, but if the threshold is $1000, you get zero tax benefit and you’ve just wasted your time :-(

    1. Michael C.*

      Well, you would only itemize if it would reduce your taxable income more than the standard deduction. Your standard deduction is dependent on your filing status, I think this past year Single was like ~$5700 or something and MFJ is generally double that. Most people/familes can only itemize if they own a home or have significant medical bills. The phone charges in and of itself will not be enough to itemize.

      Also, you would have to fairly split the phone bill amount by personal use and business use. No getting your company to cover your personal phone bill. ;)

  14. Melanie*

    Having fallen into this trap (personal phone with an expectation of being on call after hours) a couple of times in my career, I now state that I’m happy to be on call but I’m uncomfortable with giving out my private number. We don’t have access to the Google Voice service in Australia, so that’s not an option. I’ve done this twice now, and both times my employers have been fine with it, but have each made different choices. One employer suddenly decided that it wasn’t important fir me to be on call and the other supplied me with a work phone.

  15. Anonymous*

    I disagree with 99% of you. My personal phone and internet is just that mine. Not the companies. regardless if it is costing me the same amount or not it is not there for the company to us and conduct their business with. Would you let them use your car for deliveries? your house for storage? If a company I work for wants me to use a cell phone or internet access then they can provide it. They are saving money on their bottom line by not paying for cell service and getting you to pay for it. Say a company has 300 employees that use their own cell phones at $30 a month that saves them almost $500,000 a year in oppex. Do you think they are going to pass that savings on to you? Again it is my phone, I paid for the phone, the plan the insurance, ETC. so even if I have an unlimited plan I still have to pay the bill. You need to take the percentage of usage for the month and subtract your portion from the bill and get reimbursed for what they used. so if 80% of your usage was for the company they need to pay 80% of your bill.

    1. Anonymous*

      True, but this is the Ask A Manager website. The default advice will always be that which minimizes costs to the company. At least the legitimacy of other viewpoints is considered when specifically raised.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Actually, that’s not true. I’ve argued plenty of times for things that would cost an employer more, such as raises earned by good performance. Some people have a tendency to assume I’m always on management’s side if they see me on management’s side in one post, but in fact if you read this blog regularly, you’ll see that I’m just as often taking the employee’s side. (Although I do try to write about how things really work, rather than how we might believe things should work, which is something I think makes the site more helpful than some others out there.)

      2. Jamie*

        Actually, what is so great about Alison’s advice is that she comes from the perspective of good management. Managers who manage well are a win/win for the employer and the employee.

        Her advice comes from the big picture, and not the short-term corner cutting which may save a few dollars now, but is trying to prevent the bad management which ends up costing the company overall.

        I’m certainly not qualified to speak for her (or anyone else) but that’s my perspective and why her advice is so correct and invaluable.

        Seriously, her stats for giving the perfect answer addressing the specific situations while always keeping the big picture in context are ridiculously impressive.

        Sometimes I wonder if she’s a real person, or an amazing database of knowledge which generates answers based on input.

        Then I remember she has to be human – because databases don’t break their feet or have adorable cats.

  16. Anon*

    I agree with Annonymous 12/14/11 5:17 a.m. I think it’s a bad idea to blur the lines between personal and company resources unless it was agreed upon. For the most part, employees cannot use their companies’ resources to fulfill their personal obligations in the same manner if the situation was reversed.

  17. Anonymous*

    As a supervisor, should my employer provide me with a company cell phone? I am having to call to the hotel to check on everybody and also they call me at different times of day and night. When I dont have my cellphone I am being told by my GM that its difficult for the staff to call me and that I need to have my phone on at all times.

      1. Anonymous*

        isn’t your cell number private? Don’t you have a choice not to have it posted on a list for everyone to see?

  18. Jack*

    My question is not about cell phone usage. The company that my son works for is requiring him to purchase the phone and provide service on a specific model Blackberry through a specific carrier. They use an app. to run their installations. They previously required him to provide a laptop for the same reason.
    Now they are saying he will not be on the schedule if he dosen’t have this phone.
    This is in California. Doesn’t the labor law require the company to pay for the phone and service?

    1. Noah*

      I believe that in California the employer would actually be required to provide or reimburse the cost of the Blackberry, especially if it is tied to a specific carrier and requires a specific app. They have lots of different laws in California though, honestly one reason that my company avoids having employees there.

      In most other states though it would be perfectly legal for the employer to require an employee to obtain a cell phone without reimbursement.

  19. Anonymous*

    Can someone with experience comment on what a fortune 500 company will generally pay for when they advertise a job location to be remotely?Are there any requirements like me the job seeker have access to internet etc, and what will said fortune 500 company provide? Thanks

  20. fishgirl*

    my friend has a cell phone,work pays 20$ a month of his bill,he has to answer even on his days off! and No he does not get CALL pay. Just this week on the news I saw a report that a company CANNOT force you 2 use your own phone,even if they pitch in for the bill.(our company use to supply a work phone,but then changed to ‘we will give ya 20$ a month) I saw this report this week!! Most of the time I watch wpxi/chan. 11. can you help with info? Thanks!

  21. Dan*

    If an employer does not want to provide all or part of your cell phone expenses, then that employer should not expect you to answer calls on your cell phone or even to give out your number to be used. If the employer wants you to answer business-related calls on your cell phone, then that employer should pay for all or part of your cell phone. Plain and simple.

  22. Julie*

    My employer is making us sign a sheet requiring us all to have Smart phones by the years’ end so that we can receive texts about promos and specials. Can he do that? I signed up for the texts and they go off at all hours and they always say the same thing. I had to go the the phone company to have them stopped. It is for a laundromat and we work there so we really don’t need these texts. The other girls can’t afford to buy these phones but he says we have to. What is the law?

  23. denise*

    I am a sales director for an event company, and use my personal cell phone for my own etsy site and real estate business. I do not want the corporation I work for having my personal business number. I feel that if I am an outside sales representative, I should have a company phone. I cannot answer with their corporate info for my creative sites…. there is a limit on what they are asking us to do.

  24. Mark*

    My boss said I needed to use my cell phone for work..I smashed it right there on the floor in front of him and said..I dont own a cell phone…he ran down to Verizon and bought me a “Comapny” phone…Problem Solved….When I quit I gave it back to him and have NEVER owned another Cell Phone again…GOOD RIDDENCE!! such a PITA…I dont know why anyone needs one…99% of the time when you need it “On The Road” you get NO SIGNAL anyway…OR you go out of state..OOPS..look at that bill LOL…I pretend I live in 1970…if you need me LEAVE A MESSAGE…if its an emergancy….LEAVE 2 MESSAGES like they USED TO in the 1970’s-1980’s..and 1990’s…

  25. Emily*

    Your personal resources are your personal resources. If you are using your personal cell phone for work related matters (say, more than 10% of the time) then it is perfectly reasonable to expect the employer to reimburse you for part of your monthly expense.

  26. Mel*

    You may want to check your mobile provider’s contract as well. Most people don’t actually read the entire thing when they sign up, but last year I was looking through my contact with AT&T and noticed there was a clause that said the phone and plan I was paying for is a personal plan and not for business. It also said something along the lines of if I used it for business, I could be switched to a business plan and rate. Basically, by using my phone for work I was violating the contract. Something to think about.

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