Can my employer require me to buy my own laptop for work?

Question

I work as a sales representative for a California company that provides in-house corporate trainings. My job includes a lot of travel to existing and potential clients, demonstrating our training products and services. The company used to provide us with laptops for work. Recently, though, they've decided to "let" us use our own laptops for work. But I don't own a laptop, and I don't think I should have to buy one just to do my job. Can they require me to provide my own work computer?

Answer

Using personal laptops, notebooks, and smart phones for work is a big trend these days. Called BYOD (an acronym for "bring your own device"), these policies are often intended as a benefit to employees. Back in the days when corporate technology was mostly BlackBerrys, and employees preferred iPhones, BYOD policies allowed employees to use their favored device without having to carry an entire electronics store on business trips.

As in many other areas of life, however, technological advances have definitely outstripped corporate controls in the area of BYOD. Many companies are starting to rethink these policies as they become aware of the many risks, including loss of corporate data and loss of privacy for employees.

In the world of BYOD, employee lawsuits so far have focused on reimbursement for use of their personal devices. In a recent California case, the state's court of appeals found that an employer had to provide reasonable reimbursement to employees who used their own smart phones for work. Even if an employee's plan provided for unlimited use, the employer had to pick up a reasonable share of the bill. Otherwise, the court found, the employer would be unfairly passing some of the costs of doing business on to the employee.

Your employer seems to be going even further by requiring employees to provide their own laptops. California law requires employers to reimburse employees for costs they incur as a direct consequence of doing their jobs. Although California employers may require employees to provide their own "tools," this is allowed only in the case of hand tools traditionally used in a particular trade. Otherwise, employers must reimburse employees for all costs they have to expend in order to do their jobs, including the costs of necessary tools. You would certainly have a good argument that you should be reimbursed if you have to buy a laptop for work.

Hopefully, your situation won't come to this. Your employer may be assuming that all of its employees already have their own laptops or pads they can use for work. Tell your manager or HR representative that you don't have a laptop and that you don't want to buy one for work. Ask if you can keep using your corporate computer. Chances are good that your employer will see this as an easy solution to a problem that could create some legal exposure for the company.

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