Early on, working from home was a matter of adjusting on the fly. Your new desk? The kitchen table will do, thank you. No quiet place for conference calls? The front seat of the car is now your Zoom chamber. But as COVID-19 wears on and telecommuting becomes a long-term reality, however, a lot of workers have purchased items to transform their home into a functional office space. Folks have spent money on everything from increased Internet speeds and hi-def Zoom cameras to printers and more comfortable desk chairs. But this begs the question: How will this effect 2020 tax deductions? Can we write off work from home expenses accrued during the COVID pandemic when we file our taxes? What kind of work from home office tax deductions or tax write-offs can we expect? Or, dun dun dunnn, are we on the hook for the items we purchased to do our jobs better?
Well, here’s the thing: if you’re working remotely because of the pandemic, you can’t write off those work from home expenses. No, you probably don’t want to hear this. But if you’re planning on buying a fancy new ergonomic desk chair to write off as a work from home deduction, well, it’s good to keep in mind.
Tax Deductions 2020: Why You Can’t Write Off Work-From-Home Expenses
Once upon a time, work from home expenses that weren’t reimbursed by your employer could at least be written off on your tax return. But that ended with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, or TCJA, which ended miscellaneous itemized expenses. Through 2025, you can no longer take a deduction for new computer equipment or furniture for your home office, not to mention other job-oriented outlays like fees to professional associations and union dues.
The exception are self-employed individuals, including independent contractors, who can still deduct work expenditures on Schedule C of their tax return. That includes direct expenses like a new work computer and the painting of a home office that you use exclusively for your job, says Dan Gibson, a partner with the accounting firm EisnerAmper.
If you’re running your own business, you can also write off the cost of the home office itself, as long as it’s used exclusively for work purposes. Gibson says self-employed folks have two options when it comes to deducting the office. The simplified method allows you to take a $5 per-square-foot deduction, which is capped at $1,500. You also have the option of calculating the actual costs for the office, including mortgage and insurance payments, as a percentage of the overall house.
Now, claiming a home office deduction, Gibson acknowledges, may increase the odds of an IRS audit, so it’s something you want to think through.
“A lot of tax practitioners don’t like to do that because they say it raises a red flag,” he says. “But if you’re using the room exclusively as an office and you’re not using it as the kids’ playroom, there’s a legitimate reason for that deduction.”
So, as far as writing off that new desk and Wi-Fi range extender you bought to get the job done at home, we’re all out of luck.
There’s Another Option For Remote Work Expenses
Don’t stress too much if you’re not eligible for a deduction, though. Given the demands COVID-19 put on employees, a lot of companies are simply reimbursing them for work-oriented costs like increased data plans and broadband service, says Amy Bess, a Washington, DC-based employment attorney with the law firm Vedder Price. If you can get your employer to help out with those bills, the lack of a tax write-off becomes irrelevant.
In most cases, Bess says businesses aren’t actually required by law to take care of those expenses for you, but there are exceptions. Non-exempt employees — that is, workers who are eligible for overtime — may be eligible to have things like Internet and phone data costs recouped under the Fair Labor Standards Act, or FLSA.
There are also a handful of states, including Illinois, California, Montana and New Hampshire, that have their own regulations concerning employment outlays. California law, for example, requires employers to reimburse for “necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence or discharge of his or her duties.”
Most everyone else is subject to the goodwill of their employer. Fortunately, the majority of companies have been proactive when it comes to look at reimbursement issues, according to Bess.
“They want to support their work-from-home employees so they can continue to be productive and feel connected with the employer,” she says.
For businesses that are behind the curve, Bess says there are ways to apply pressure short of threatening a big lawsuit if they don’t pony up. She recommends talking to other employees and seeing if they’re experiencing similar issues. When multiple workers are asking for assistance, employers are more likely to take notice, she says.
Needless to say, sending in receipts for your office’s new wood paneling probably won’t get the job done. But for expenses that you can’t avoid, like a new printer, it’s certainly worth a shot. And organizations are often willing to pitch in for a beefed-up Internet or mobile data plan, especially if you’re only asking for a pro-rated amount based on your business usage.
“I just think it’s important for employees to start the dialogue,” says Bess. “I don’t think it should be that big of a controversy.”