Does the employer have to pay for modifications needed because of a disability?
Question: Is an employer required to pay for modifications to an employee’s home office that the employee needs because of a disability?
Answer: Many employees have been working remotely since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and some employers have closed their offices and required employees to work from home. While offices are now reopening and employees are returning, it is expected that remote work will continue to be prevalent in the post-pandemic world.
Generally speaking, if an employee chooses to work from home and has the option of working at the office, the employer will not need to pay for the furniture and equipment in the employee’s home office. The situation can be different, however, if the employee is working from home at the direction of the employer or because of other circumstances beyond the employee’s control, such as a disability.
Under the employment standards legislation in a number of Canadian jurisdictions, an employer cannot require an employee to pay any of the employer’s business costs. However, even where this type of prohibition exists, an employer can usually make it a term of employment on hiring that the employee must provide the tools or equipment they need to perform their duties, as long as the cost of operating them is paid by the employer. So, for example, an employee could be required to provide a laptop computer to work from their home office, but the employer would need to pay for any office supplies or other expenses incurred by the employee in the course of performing their job functions.
If an employee normally works from the office, but is being required to work at home, the employee may be able to argue that it is unreasonable for the employer to insist that the employee pay the cost of the equipment they need to work remotely. Because of this, many employers have been supplying their remote employees with such equipment.
If an employee has a disability that requires modifications to be made to their office equipment or workstation, this will engage the employer’s duty to accommodate under human rights legislation, and will usually require the employer to provide or pay for the required. However, if the employer has already provided those accommodations for the employee at its office, it may be unreasonable for the employee to insist that the employer duplicate this at the employee’s home, if working at the office is a reasonable alternative for the employee. And, of course, if an employee makes a disability-related accommodation request, the employer can ask the employee to provide medical information in support of the request.
Employers should also consider whether their obligation under occupational health and safety legislation to ensure a safe work environment applies to the employee’s home office. In most jurisdictions, this obligation extends to wherever an employee is conducting work, including home offices. Ontario is a notable exception, in that its Occupational Health and Safety Act does not apply to work performed at home.
Colin Gibson is a partner with Harris and Company in Vancouver. He can be reached at (604) 891-2212 or cgibson[email protected]