Here's your work and, oh yeah, your bill ...
March 11, 2014 5:10 PM   Subscribe

On Monday, I start my first non self- or under-employed job in five years. It is with a very large (4000+ employees) company that's a big player in their field, and I am very happy and grateful to have the job. But, as I'm sitting here filling out the employee paperwork I'm faced with a "New PC Employee Acceptance Form". It seems I will be issued a company laptop, but I will also be charged $70/month that "covers XXX Company's standard for PC hardware, software and maintenance". This was never discussed in my salary negotiations. Questions: Is this normal? and, Is this an expense I will be able to write off at tax time?
posted by Benny Andajetz to Work & Money (37 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
That's not normal at all. I assume from your profile that you're in the US?

Is it possible that you're an independent contractor (and thus supposed to provide your own equipment) instead of a W-2 employee?
posted by zachlipton at 5:12 PM on March 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Yes, in the US. And, definitely salaried W-2 employee.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:14 PM on March 11, 2014

That is weird, and you should bring it up to your hiring manager to see whether you can get a $70/month raise or just have them write it off entirely.

Can you talk to your co-workers-to-be to see whether this is a standing thing?
posted by Etrigan at 5:17 PM on March 11, 2014

If this ends up being something that comes out of your pocket, then no, that is not normal and is very very strange.

Assuming incompetence instead of malice, I would guess this is an internal accounting thing. Perhaps your group is being charged by IT? Perhaps you're merely being asked to sign to acknowledge receipt of the laptop, but the company is being charged by their vendor?

I would definitely request clarity on this.
posted by Dilligas at 5:22 PM on March 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

I've also never heard of this. For that kind of money, you could buy yourself a nice PC once a year. I've even had friends who lost or damaged their work-issued laptops and were just issued another to replace it with no drama.

Will they be deducting this from your salary? Post-tax or pre-tax? It seems very strange to say the least.
posted by quince at 5:23 PM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

That does not sound normal.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 5:29 PM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Did they also give you a "New Office Chair and Desk Employee Acceptance Form" with a monthly charge?
What happens if you drop it, are you responsible for the repair?
Nolo has a page about deducting expenses.
posted by Sophont at 5:32 PM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

How clever. Will you also be receiving a monthly cubicle heating bill and have to drop a quarter into the lock on the stall to use the bathroom?

I have never heard of this type of charge being passed directly to the employee.
posted by rockindata at 5:40 PM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

The only time I've seen this is when employees have a technology allowance and the laptop counts against it (rather than being deducted from pay).
posted by dpx.mfx at 5:41 PM on March 11, 2014

Get clarity. Sometimes paperwork has irrelevant/incorrect stuff in it that nobody's bothered to update.

NO it is not normal and I've never heard of such a thing.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:42 PM on March 11, 2014

Are you going to be invoiced for your office supplies and your share of the office space rent/mortgage and utilities too?

I've never had to pay such a fee at any job I worked - whether I was a full-time employee, a temp, or an independent contractor.
posted by SisterHavana at 5:50 PM on March 11, 2014

I've never heard of this. Check if it's billed to your cost center or something and the form just isn't clear.
posted by winna at 5:57 PM on March 11, 2014

FWIW I've worked at two (large, well-known) companies where W2 employees who work from home are required to provide their own equipment or rent/purchase a laptop from the company (at a not-so-competitive price). If you're working from home and don't have your own computer with the right specs I can see this happening. It's definitely weird that it wasn't discussed before hiring though.
posted by celtalitha at 6:06 PM on March 11, 2014

I use a very nice laptop from my very non-glamorous job, and they have never asked me to pay a dime for it. If it was lost, stolen or busted, they would replace it. Companies buy computers at discount, generally speaking, in lots, and those expenses are accounted for in their taxes (or should be); there is no reason for them to charge you an extortionate amount to use one. I'd personally rather buy my own in that case, at a price I liked, and so I got to keep it.

The fact that it's a good-sized company makes it even weirder; I can see a mom and pop pulling something like that, but not a business that large.
posted by emjaybee at 6:15 PM on March 11, 2014

In my state, part of the legal difference between an independent contractor and employee is that an employee doesn't have to pay for their own tools.
posted by steinsaltz at 6:20 PM on March 11, 2014 [7 favorites]

One thing to note is that a lot of posters here who jump in to answer all the employment questions are either in the northeast US or in California, and those places have much different labor laws and basic employment standards than... other parts of the country. Having an employee provide their own laptop or purchase a specific type of laptop does not necessarily make them an independent contractor under federal guidelines, and in my experience it is often the enormous corporate giants that are quite familiar with the details of the law and all it's myriad loopholes and how to carefully avoid breaking any actual laws while being as skeezy as possible.
posted by celtalitha at 7:12 PM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Can you refuse the laptop and offer to merely "check out" a loaner laptop when it's truly needed for a business assignment? You could even borrow your boss' laptop and pay him a pro-rated piece of the $70, which would go onto your trip expense report.

Do you *need* the laptop for your assignment? Or is this a veiled employee purchase payment plan?
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:13 PM on March 11, 2014

In 20+ years of employment in office jobs, for both private-sector, non-profit, and quasi-governmental employers, I've never been asked to pay for something like that. My department gets assessed a monthly charge per employee, but we don't pay for it ourselves. (Note, this is in California, if (as suggested above) that makes a difference.)
posted by Lexica at 7:33 PM on March 11, 2014

Best answer: Benny, I do corporate IT for a living, come into contact with lots of CIOs and IT Directors from other organizations, and generally stay on top of all of the trends around (among other things) desktop management. This is a new one for me. For W2 employees, companies are experimenting with "bring your own device" models where they give the employee a stipend to go buy their own computer. That is a small subset of companies; everyone else is doing what we've always done: either leasing or buying computers and issuing them to employees. I can't imagine how a 4,000+ org would operate differently. N'thing all of the suggestions about seeking clarity. Your question is very clear about them charging you $70/month. As a couple of other posters mentioned, this is more than just the cost of hardware and software cost; this must be including the cost of managing the device, too. Please come back and post a follow-up, if this is real, I'd love to know more.
posted by kovacs at 7:43 PM on March 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

I live in one of those "... other" {shriek!} states and this is malarky. I get dinged $6/mo. for parking, but I can refuse it if I want. Beyond that, in the three "... other" {shriek!} states I've lived in, this would be a non-starter. Sounds like a glitch in payroll or a poorly worded form. Like kovacs I'd be interested in your followup.
posted by easement1 at 8:11 PM on March 11, 2014

Yeah, almost 20 years in IT/Accounting and have contact with customers in many industries, and I have never heard of such a thing. Hell, I work for an itty bitty company from home and they told me to let them know if I needed to buy a printer or scanner. I expense half my cell phone bill and have a company VOIP phone.

Among other things, computer hardware/software is generally either a fixed asset or capitalized expense, and they are depreciated or end-of-lifed in about 24 months, with the exception of maybe leased server hardware. Charging you $70/month in perpetuity seems super sketch, especially if you don't get to own the equipment outright eventually.

I would ask some very firm questions about it, to everyone in your chain. Not just HR (who don't know, they just do what they're told) but your immediate supervisor.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:34 PM on March 11, 2014

Here's an IRS page that may help answer your tax question.
posted by southern_sky at 8:36 PM on March 11, 2014

My mother is a specialized software consultant, and whether as an independent contractor or employee working for a third party, has never ever been asked or required to pay for what is essentially equipment rental. Not once from any of the astonishing number of clients she's worked for. She has her own business-ready laptop and has used it for a few 1099 gigs, but usually the company issues her a machine for work, laptop or desktop, because they don't tend to want their data on someone else's machine. Or as in her current job, her tiny company did buy her a laptop that she can use for anything she likes as well as work, but she does most of the actual work on the desktop provided by the current client and only uses her company laptop to VPN in remotely.

That is not normal, don't agree to pay unless you have no other choice and get some clarification anyway. $840 per year to use a computer is so damn wrong, even if it is rent to own, which it doesn't sound like. And look at the small print, because even with the rental price, they sound like the kind of nasty cheapo jerks who'd still expect you to pay full replacement if it breaks. They should issue you a work machine, or give you the option to use your own. With that many employees, they must have an IT dept and you shouldn't be paying their salaries out of yours.
posted by monopas at 9:43 PM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As the aforementioned mother of monopas, I am astonished! I have worked in Accounting and IT for 30-plus years and have never encountered anything like this. For the last 17 years, I have been a delivery consultant doing implementations of a huge ERP/Accounting/HR applications offering from the biggest relational database provider in the world. I have worked for very small and very large companies. As a consultant, I have worked with several Fortune 50 companies.

I have never been asked to pay for a company-provided laptop or desktop. Only one small company I worked for didn't provide a laptop using some flimsy excuse;--I bought my own because I needed to be able to work when I was not on site at the client. When I have worked 1099 contracts I have provided my own equipment; that's a common practice.

Obviously, the "New PC Employee Acceptance Form" with the $70/month charge raised a red flag for you. It should have. I have signed for company-provided equipment and returned it at the end of my employment, but that has just been an acknowledgement that I received the equipment and was obligated to return it. My current employer provides me with a new laptop and they reimburse me for a portion of my cell phone and internet service costs. Most days I work on site for our client and use the client's equipment (and very nice equipment it is). While labor laws and practices do vary from state to state, they are pretty consistent in the IT industry. I have worked with clients-companies and governmental agencies-in more states than not and have not seen this before.

When you say "a big player in their field", what do you mean? If they can't provide you with the equipment you need to do their work, how are they going to afford to pay you? Also, any time the "paperwork" for employment includes any surprises, that raises big red flags for me.
In your place, I would not sign that "New PC Employee Acceptance Form" or agree to "be charged $70/month that "covers XXX Company's standard for PC hardware, software and maintenance"." I would bring it in with me and ask the HR Rep or intake Manager what it is about. In my mind, it falls under "you have to pay us to work for us" and that does not make sense.

I have worked in one or two situations where the client would not allow us to use anything but a company-issued machine to protect the security of their data, but they didn't ask us to pay for it. And with the proliferation of wireless-enabled devices, companies are developing policies and procedures so that employees can get their email on phones and tablets without compromising security.
posted by Altomentis at 10:40 PM on March 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

In my company, we have a system for ordering a computer that shows prices, but they are covered by the company. So at first it may seem like they are charging you, but the cost is actually charged to your department or whatever.

But yeah, I would definitely clarify that with another employee.
posted by inparticularity at 11:30 PM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Heck I'm a 1099 contractor right now and I'm using a company issued laptop as I type this.
posted by Carillon at 11:33 PM on March 11, 2014

If you're providing your own equipment essential to complete your work, in fact, you would usually be owed an additional allowance/rental from the company, similar to mileage owed for using your car to make errands or go on business trips.

I would be skeptical of whatever 4000+ employee company does this, and immediately suspect that it's a company with other glaringly questionable business tactics, which is neither here nor there... but curiosity is piqued.
posted by Unsomnambulist at 1:10 AM on March 12, 2014

I've never heard of leasing equipment to employees, but I'd be surprised if there was any actual rule against it. Is there anything special about the type of hardware and software the company requires you to use?

You may have stumbled across the latest beachhead in the nickel-and-diming of employees. I can easily imagine executives seeing this in the same light as charging employees for the uniforms they are required to wear.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:36 AM on March 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Freaking bizarre. Ask for clarification from your department. If you can't get this waived somehow, contact a local labor/employment attorney. I smell a rat.
posted by valkyryn at 6:07 AM on March 12, 2014

Whether or not it's illegal it's definitely hinky. The closest I've ever seen at a job where I had similar invoices, but they were against whatever internal cost center, not me personally.
posted by PMdixon at 7:03 AM on March 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My experience is like PMdixon's -- in larger companies and companies that do a lot of Gov't work, they have to show some justification for overhead chargers and internal IT costs etc. So there's a flat rate for each employee that's a combination of computer/network/phone that gets rolled into contracts in addition to the salary/benefits numbers.

It's "ghost money" in that the costs aren't paid per-se, but it is how the company tracks the costs and justifies overhead to the gov't. (ie a internal cost center accounting bit)
posted by k5.user at 8:07 AM on March 12, 2014

I've never heard of this after almost 20 years in IT with dozens of companies. If they're going to enforce it, I'd tell them to get bent and provide my own equipment. Over the typical five year life of many corporate PCs, they're taking $4,200 from you. Ridiculous.
posted by cnc at 9:27 AM on March 12, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks, everybody, for the responses. I'd pick every one of them as the best answers, but...

I'll have to wait until I actually get on the job to get the full skinny, but a preliminary response from the company is that the form is just a chain-of-custody document and I WILL NOT be charged for the laptop. Why it's worded that way still confuses me, and I will dig further.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:55 AM on March 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

...but a preliminary response from the company is that the form is just a chain-of-custody document and I WILL NOT be charged for the laptop.

I'd want that in writing, signed, and attached to the contract before I signed.

Once, at a former job, management sent around to all the artists a work-for-hire contract. Management said it was just to ensure everyone understood that any work we did at the studio, during work hours, was studio property. But, it was worded so that they claimed ownership of anything the artists created, even outside work hours. Management kept assuring us that they'd never enforce it like that but kept balking at changing the wording. Eventually, they realized we were never going to sign it and they acquiesced.

The point is, if you have an issue with the wording of a contract, get it changed before you sign.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:27 AM on March 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

Is the alternative that you bring in your own laptop (BYOD)?
posted by wenestvedt at 11:34 AM on March 12, 2014

Why it's worded that way still confuses me, and I will dig further.

It could be that they'll charge you if you lose it. That's not awesome in terms of best practices, but it's not legally problematic. Employers are permitted to charge employees for damage to company property, but they're not permitted to dock your paycheck for such charges without your permission. This could be a way of getting that permission up front. Which kind of sucks, but isn't the worst thing in the world.

So that's a possibility. But really, check it out before you sign.
posted by valkyryn at 2:26 AM on March 14, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks, everybody. It's been slamming so hard at the new job, I forgot to follow up. I never got a completely straight answer, but: 1. I am NOT being charged, and 2. The only thing I can figure is that k5.user's explanation is what's happening - we do a lot of government contracting and the laptop charge is just part of their accounting for billable hours.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:07 PM on April 11, 2014

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