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It was in the summer months that Gareth* first realised that the working from home boon came at a cost. Despite living in a small one-bedroom flat, the SEO manager’s electricity bills had more than doubled. “I knew my usage would increase by a fair bit but certainly not to the level I discovered,” he explains. “My monthly savings have had to be sacrificed – it’s hugely frustrating.”
Like millions around the country, Gareth’s kitchen table has become his workstation. Three-quarters of his waking day, previously whiled away on commuter trains and inside an east London office, is now nearly entirely spent in the home. His laptop and second monitor are plugged in for eight hours straight. His phone charger lives inside the mains, ready to go around the clock. His kettle is called upon morning, noon and night.
With much of the workforce based at home, it’s little wonder that the nation’s bills have been mounting: the average household now has 12 connected devices, a hike of 17 per cent since lockdown. But it’s now, as the nights draw in and the autumnal winds howl, that our work from home costs are set to summit – research has indicated that the collective climb in energy bills will be nearly £2 billion this winter. The typical full-time remote worker’s total bill by spring next year will have grown by nearly 18 per cent, and likely to cost more than £700.
Gareth is one of the fortunate ones. Although his savings for a mortgage will take a hit, he’s confident that he has the funds to handle a spike in energy costs – boosted by not having to spend a small fortune commuting from Hertfordshire every day. For others, however, facing pay cuts or providing for family members now unemployed as a result of the crisis, stumping up an extra £100 or so on their last, pre-Covid winter bill is far from a given.
As winter bites and Covid-19’s grip tightens, more and more low-income households – no longer working in the office – are faced with either cranking up the boiler and falling into debt, or rationing their daytime heating to the extent that it’s harmful to their health. “Cold homes can cause or exacerbate a range of serious health conditions such as asthma, strokes and heart disease,” explains Matt Copeland of charity National Energy Action (NEA). “If these homes are cold, damp and draughty they could be placed at greater risk of the worst effects of Covid.”
Heating, water and electricity is part of the office package. Given that workers are now having to cover costs previously incurred in the workplace, should they be recompensed by bosses? Under current legislation, employees required to work from home can request a £6-a-week tax-free allowance from their firm. However, it’s at the employer’s discretion. And with many businesses struggling, it’s only the select few paying out. “Our electricity bill has gone through the roof with two of us working from home full-time,” says Emily*, a software developer from London. “My partner’s in health tech: he’s receiving the allowance and it’s thankfully pretty much covering our extra costs.”
Unfortunately, those in the most desperate need of the weekly allowance will probably be less likely to be working for benevolent bosses in thriving post-Covid industries. However, Joanne Walker, of the initiative Low Incomes Tax Reform Group, believes that it’s still worth workers asking bosses for help if they need it. “The employer might not be paying out the allowance, but it could be because they simply haven’t thought of it. They might not be able to afford the full £6, but something is better than nothing – it’s worth raising awareness with your HR department.”
Otherwise, it’s possible for employees to claim tax relief on the £6 from the HMRC – equivalent to £1.20 a week – if they’ve had to work from home since April. Copeland, who points to the average annual pre-Covid energy bill as being £1,184, brands the amount a “pittance.” He adds that poorer households require more energy use, creating a vicious circle of rising debt and fuel consumption. “Families in cold, leaky homes face monthly heating bills on average £48 more than those in well-insulated homes. So even £6 a week won’t cover those costs.”
While the NEA is calling for the government to make it a legal requirement for firms to provide a basic work from home allowance, some remote workers want to eliminate their new household outgoings by returning to the office. “I’d have no problem going in if it were an option,” says Kate*, who works for a major London corporate. She explains that her office in Tier 2 is technically open, but only for employees in extreme circumstances. “I cycle to work normally so have no commuting costs. We have a subsidised canteen so eating at home is actually more expensive. I’m doing the same work, but no longer receiving those benefits and bearing more costs.”
There are other ways that employees are ending up with less in their back pocket every month. “I’ve ended up losing money,” admits Rebecca*, a charity worker based in the south-west. “My commuting costs were minimal, and I’d drive around 200 business miles a month which I could claim back on. And I got free tea and coffee – which was quite a saving as I’m an ardent tea drinker.” Of course, more cups of tea means more flushes of the toilet and steeper water bills. Rebecca adds that her manager is considering if they can budget to pay their staff a weekly allowance. “But as it’s a charity, everything is run on a shoestring. Until they can quantify savings, they don’t know if they’ll be able to afford it.”
This issue goes deeper than whining workers trying to squeeze every last penny out of firms struggling to navigate a global crisis. It’s an employment rights issue: is it fair that employees, who have always maximised their bosses’ profits, are now expected to subsidise their outgoings too? Kate doesn’t think so. “I manage a team, some of whom are struggling right now, and our work is doing really well despite Covid. It’s entirely possible that they could consider a gesture that might go some way in alleviating the burden on their employees. On the individuals, it’s a much more straightforward hit on the pocket.”
Kate hasn’t raised the issue yet with her employer, but she’s considering it. It’s now that the clocks have gone back that memories of glorious lockdown sunshine fade away, and the novelty of working from home wears thin for many. As lights are flicked on closer to mid-afternoon, the radiators croak into life more regularly and we rely on increasing doses of caffeine to shock us awake – millions around the country will be feeling the pinch. Expect the row over who picks up the working from home bill to slowly brew.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity
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