Be prepared if California court's BYOD ruling sticks

Nancy Gohring

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Credit: Quazie

Last week, a California court issued a decision that could force companies to reimburse workers for using their personal phones for business.

While this ruling could be appealed and would only impact California, there have been legal battles in other states around cell phone reimbursement. All the activity shows that this issue isn't going away and businesses should at the very least be thinking about how they would handle reimbursements if they become legally required.

What the ruling says
The California appeals court last week said that when employees have to use their personal cell phones for work-related calls, the employer has to reimburse "a reasonable percentage of their cell phone bills." That holds whether the user has an unlimited plan or not.

The question of whether a business has to reimburse workers for phone use has tended to center on so-called non-exempt employees, said Mani Zarrehparvar, president of Visage. Generally speaking, non-exempt workers are paid by the hour rather than on a salary, and by law must be paid for working overtime. With mobile phones "we can all be at work any time, anywhere, but not everyone falls into the category where you can ask them to work any time, anywhere without compensating them," he said.

He said that legal battles around cell phone reimbursement have popped up in other states as well, including Washington, New Jersey, and Michigan.

While the California ruling puts the issue in the spotlight, it doesn't do much to clarify the complexity around managing BYOD, he said. "For someone to read this [ruling] and say this is the death of BYOD or this means everyone will do X is not the case," he said. He expects continued discussion around the issue until a sort of "social norm" emerges around how to handle business use of personal devices.

What to do
In the meantime, businesses would be wise to classify their workers and determine what level of reimbursement is appropriate based on the type of worker. There are several tools and services that can help you out.

Visage Mobile is a SaaS offering that accesses a worker's bill directly from the carrier and applies the employer's rules to the bill in order to generate an expense report for the worker. The service will parse out the worker's charges, even if the worker has a shared bill with other family members, and then apply the employer's rules. For instance, the employer might pay for all of the data charges, 70 percent of the voice usage, and no roaming fees. 

MindWireless is another vendor that helps businesses manage mobile reimbursements. It helped Express Energy Services implement a new policy to offer workers a stipend rather than paying an entire bill. EES expected it would save it $1 million a year with the new policy.

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