Should Governments Tax Remote Workers for the 'Privilege' of Working from Home?

Deutsche Bank raises a provocative issue

Stephen Miller, CEBS By Stephen Miller, CEBS November 18, 2020
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Woman working from home on computer speaking to 4 collegues pictured in separate squares on her monitor.

As an out-of-the-box idea meant to spark debate, this one has potential. Luke Templeman, a London-based researcher at global financial firm Deutsche Bank, authored an article that's gone viral, arguing that governments around the world should tax employees who have the privilege of working remotely during the pandemic an additional 5 percent on their earnings, with the revenues spent on front-line emergency workers and others who can't work from home.

Templeman's article, "A Work-from-Home Tax," was published online in Deutsche Bank's November 2020 What We Must Do to Rebuild report.

"For years we have needed a tax on remote workers—COVID has just made it obvious," Templeman wrote. "Those who can [work from home] receive direct and indirect financial benefits and they should be taxed in order to smooth the transition process for those who have been suddenly displaced."

During the pandemic, he noted, "the proportion of Americans who worked from home increased 10-fold to 56 percent. In the U.K., there was a seven-fold increase to 47 percent. Many of these people will continue to work remotely for some time."

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How would his tax work? "The tax itself will be paid by the employer if it does not provide a worker with a permanent desk. If it does, and the staff member chooses to work from home, the employee will pay the tax out of their salary for each day they work from home," Templeman proposed. The tax would only apply outside of the times when the government advises people to work from home.

As for the tax rate, "Those who can work from home tend to have higher-than-average incomes," Templeman argued. "If we assume the average salary of a person who chooses to work from home in the U.S. is $55,000, a tax of 5 percent works out to just over $10 per working day. That is roughly the amount an office worker might spend on commuting, lunch, laundry, etc."

Templeman estimates that the roughly $48 billion raised could pay for a $1,500 grant to the 29 million workers who cannot work from home and earn under $30,000 a year. He concludes that, from a social justice standpoint, it makes sense that people who assume pandemic risks for low wages "should be given a helping hand. …  Those who are lucky enough to be in a position to 'disconnect' themselves from the face-to-face economy owe it to them."

Counter Arguments

Templeman's plea isn't likely to go down well with employees who work from home, say workplace consultants, as the pandemic once again has spiked across the U.S. and around the globe, and more companies are sending workers back to home offices.

In addition, a tax could prove to be a hardship for remote workers who have family caregiving needs, such as supervising children who are schooling from home, as well as for employees who must use mass transit to commute to work, where social distancing can be difficult or impossible.

Adding a new expense also may be painful for employees working remotely who struggle to convince their employers to reimburse them for home office supplies or even necessary equipment. Mercer's Global Flexible Working Survey, conducted in July and August with responses from 793 U.S. employers, found that only 4 in 10 employers provide any financial support to employees working remotely, and most that do are paying via a reimbursement process.

Remote workers also have discovered that they are ineligible to claim narrowly tailored tax deductions for home office expenses, finding that unless they meet a specific set of rules, they won't be able to claim a home office deduction on their 2020 taxes. And some who are working from a state different from where their employer is based—including workers who have moved back to their childhood homes to care for aging parents—could be subject to double state income taxes, levied both by the state where they're working and the state where their empty cubicle sits, depending on applicable state tax laws.

Provoking Debate

On Twitter, the BBC asked for responses to the idea, and the tweet storm of responses ranged from impassioned: "I am 61 years old and not going to the office is a lifesaver in my eyes," to fact-based: "People who work from home usually work much longer hours than working in an office. Pay for electricity etc., which is given in office," to suspicious: "Hmmmm. I wonder why Deutsche bank [which has] heavily invested in commercial real estate would suggest financially forcing people back into the office?"

Phil Flaxton, chief executive of the nonprofit Work Wise UK, which advocates in favor of smarter ways of working, told ZDNet, a business technology news website, "It is obvious that the report is designed to stimulate debate. It's a great discussion piece and I understand the point they are making, but I would certainly not come down in favor of it."

Remote work "is not an undesirable activity to be curtailed by prohibitive taxation," blogged Jared Walczak, vice president of state projects at the Tax Foundation, a tax policy nonprofit in Washington, D.C. "And there is no particular reason why those working from home, either by their choice or their employer's, should be responsible for supplementing the income of those who remain in offices, however deserving they may be."

Taking a somewhat different approach, political columnist Megan McArdle tweeted, "there should have been a surtax on those who were still employed to pay extended unemployment to those who weren't. The sacrifice should have been shared, and was not."

As for Templeman, he told BBC News that based on the feedback he's received, "a lot of people aren't impressed at the idea of another tax, however, some have seen it as an interesting policy that governments can use to redistribute some of the gains from the pandemic, which have been unexpectedly accrued by some people while others have lost out."



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