Do you use your personal phone or internet services for work? A recent survey commissioned by SACOSS found that 70% of the workers surveyed used their own phone or internet services for work. There were casual workers checking rosters online or being notified about work by phone, photographers and care workers navigating to different worksites, and delivery drivers phoning ahead to organise pick-ups or drop-offs. There were nurses checking data on new diseases, gig-workers accessing work and pay online, lots of people remotely checking work emails or documents, and casual academics doing all their research from their own home office.
For some of the survey respondents, use of their phone and internet services was incidental and minor, for others it has become a vital tool of their trade – and for some it was a core part of the business model of their employer.
Perhaps none of this is a surprise in our digital age, but the important thing about this survey was that all the respondents were “waged poor”. That is, they were employed but still living below the poverty line. (And for the record, at least a quarter of all households with incomes under the poverty line have wages as their main source of income). At that point, we had to ask – why are some of the poorest workers in the country subsidising their employment by paying for the cost of work communications?
The SACOSS “Paying to Work” study found that in many cases this expenditure on telecommunications for work was not reimbursed by employers (and is not required to be reimbursed by many awards). It was simply assumed that all employees have access to this digital technology and that this is available for use for work purposes.
It is hard to itemise every phone call for reimbursement, and telco plans with unlimited data or calls, mean that there is sometimes no extra personal expenditure for that work use. However, where that telco service is required to be used for work, there should be compensation for a share of the cost of the plan that allows that work use.
Now these reimbursement issues apply to all employees, BUT they are particularly important for waged poor households, for whom even small expenditures have a big impact. Partly it is just simple fairness, but workers on the lowest incomes are also least likely to be able to claim such work expenses on tax – either because they don’t have access to tax advice, or they simply don’t earn enough to pay tax so any deduction is useless. And in any case, a tax rebate covers only part of the cost and is delayed until the end of the year. It is simply no substitute for employers reimbursing employee expenses.
Obviously, with so many people now working remotely and relying on telecommunications through the COVID-19 restrictions, the impact of this issue has been multiplied. Telecommunications is also only one part of a broader conversation about the costs (and safety) of home offices, but in general it should be pretty obvious that we should not be shifting the cost of doing business on to the poorest workers.
Dr Greg Ogle, SACOSS Senior Policy and Research Analyst, May 2020
This article was originally published by the Adelaide Advertiser on 28 September 2020.
The Paying to Work report is available at here