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Working from home: Who ‘pays the price’?

Do you have an obligation to provide home office equipment to your staff if they work from home? Are you entitled to refuse to reimburse an employee’s purchase of equipment that they claim they need to safely perform their work?

The Fair Work Commission (FWC) recently considered these issues, in McKean v Red Energy Pty Ltd (2020), when presented with a claim by an employee that he was constructively dismissed when his employer refused to reimburse him for a desk that he needed to purchase to work from home.

The bone – or desk – of contention

Red Energy Pty Ltd (Red Energy) employed Mr McKean in the position of customer assist specialist, which required him to use a computer and speak to customers on the telephone. The absence of a work desk at Mr McKean’s home meant that in March 2020, when his employer encouraged employees to work from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he was permitted to continue working in the office.

In May, Mr McKean asked if Red Energy would reimburse him for purchasing a desk for home. While his employer refused to take this step, it did allow him to continue to work from the office.

In July 2020, the CEO of Red Energy actioned the Victorian Government Stage 3 lockdown restrictions, requiring employees who could work from home to do so. Mr McKean was directed to work from home but continued to work from the office.

Mr McKean’s union representative advised Red Energy that Mr McKean had been directed to work from home without the “appropriate equipment necessary to carry out his work from home, namely a desk”. On Monday 20 July 2020, Mr McKean sent Red Energy an email stating he was resigning from Red Energy, effective immediately.

Limits on provision of equipment

Mr McKean believed he was unfairly dismissed. In Mr McKean’s words, he was denied access to the office and, without any safe place to work, he had no choice but to resign.

Additionally, Mr McKean claimed Red Energy was in breach of its safety obligations to provide a safe working environment under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004. In support of this claim, Mr McKean relied on WorkSafe’s Guide for Employers: Preparing for a Pandemic, which required employers to provide adequate resources, such as technology and furniture, for employees to work from home.

The FWC rejected Mr McKean’s claim. In respect of the safety issues, the FWC found Red Energy had provided sufficient equipment to allow Mr McKean to work from home. While it did not provide Mr McKean with a desk, Red Energy provided him with:

  • a laptop;
  • a headset;
  • an adjustable chair;
  • ergonomic assessments; and
  • access to an occupational therapist and online resources.

With reference to Mr McKean’s computer-based job, Red Energy believed it was not fair and reasonable to provide Mr McKean with a desk.

The FWC noted that Mr McKean’s resignation communication did not refer to any element of compulsion to resign, as there was none. Instead, the FWC found that Red Energy acted reasonably. Importantly, it found that Red Energy’s refusal to pay for Mr McKean’s desk did not force him to resign.

The FWC ultimately rejected Mr McKean’s claim, finding that other options were available to the employee before resigning his employment, such as borrowing a work desk.

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