While most Americans havesince the pandemic started, spending in one area is surging: electricity, internet and phone bills for millions of people who are working from home.
For Sarah Coryell, a college lecturer in Madison, Wisconsin, her former habit of two hours of daily internet usage has ballooned into as many as 10 when she moved to full-time teaching from home in mid-March. Hunkered down at home and leaving only to buy groceries, her electricity bill nearly doubled.
"We're here all the time, we have the lights on, everything's plugged in — we're just using more," said Coryell, 27. "The shutdown and working from home has probably cost us several hundred dollars."
In California, residential energy use during the pandemic has risen 15% to 20% over the same period last year, the state's utilities commission reports. In New York City, residential power use is up 4% to 7%, according to Columbia University researchers.
The Big Apple's main electricity provider, Con Edison, recently told residents to expect higher bills this summer "due to more people staying home." Engineers also have warned of potential blackouts this summer as people crank up their air conditioners.
Where the money goes
It's not just electricity. Costs that might go unnoticed in an office environment are suddenly becoming visible as homebound workers brew their own coffee, run the dishwasher multiple times and even purchase equipment for working from home.
Coryell's cell phone data use has increased about tenfold since she started working from home, forcing her to upgrade to an unlimited-data plan. She's also bought a webcam and an office chair with back support. She briefly considered making a request from the university where she works for a second monitor, but was overwhelmed by simply getting everything set up in time. As a former elementary-school teacher, she said she was used to covering work expenses out of pocket.
"We had other charges that we put on credit cards in the time being," she said. "With the COVID thing, everyone had to do emergency work, emergency make-do, and it's not like I was going to stop teaching."
Social media is deluged with people upset about their work-from-home power bills. One person suggested on Twitter that their employer should "at least pay the electric bill for the unnecessarily powerful laptop I have to run 8 hours a day now." Another tweeted, "[I]t's spring in South Texas, and if I have to work from home, it has to be comfortable."
Some employers have made moves on this issue. Facebook offered some of its workers a $1,000 cash bonus to help with work-from-home costs.
Employers typically save money when people work from home, for a range of reasons — from spending less on office space to getting more of a worker's time when their commute is eliminated. A recent Deutsche Bank study suggested that companies give a financial bonus to remote workers so they can build a home office: "Might it then make sense for employers to raise salaries for staff who work from home?" the investment bank mused.
For now, getting an employer to cover a heavy electricity bill is a question that will be decided on a case-by-case basis.
"Does that potentially mean an employer pays for electric bills? The answer will vary state to state and even city to city," said Krista Slosburg, an employment lawyer based in Seattle. "Some states and cities have laws that actually require employers to reimburse employees for work-related expenses. Depending on what that law or ordinance provides, employers might be required to pay for internet or phone usage."
California, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Montana and Pennsylvania are among the places requiring companies to pay back employees for certain out-of-pocket work costs. Courts have also sided with workers in this scenario. Businesses have been told to pay for increased cell-phone use and even chip in for a workers' rent after requiring that person to work remotely.
It's also in the employer's interest to make their employees comfortable, no matter where they're working from, said Paul Scialla, CEO of Delos, a real-estate "wellness" company whose investors include Bill Gates. Wellness issues for the work-from-home crowd could range from testing for air and water quality to standup desks to relieve achy backs.
"If the company is going to get the benefit of having employees work and not pay for an office lease, there needs to be a financial consideration," Scialla said. "The environment that people put themselves has an impact on how well they perform."