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Taxation For No Office Representation? A Possible Work-From-Home Fee Sparks Debate

The business world is in flux, coronavirus cases are surging again, the president has not conceded last week’s election and the president-elect is poised to take office with a plan to increase the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%

As if there weren’t enough polarizing issues in the world, a major financial institution is calling for another tax that is proving divisive.

Companies whose employees continue to work from home when the coronavirus pandemic has been brought under control should be taxed at a rate of 5% of the remote worker’s salary, Deutsche Bank Research suggests. It proposes the $48.7B accumulated annually from the tax in the U.S. be redistributed to lower-income workers who can’t work from home. 

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“The sudden shift to WFH means that, for the first time in history, a big chunk of people have disconnected themselves from the face-to-face world yet are still leading a full economic life,” Deutsche Bank macro strategist Luke Templeman wrote. “That means remote workers are contributing less to the infrastructure of the economy whilst still receiving its benefits.”

He argues that remote workers save on travel, meals and apparel, as well as “indirect savings via forgone socialising and other expenses that would have been incurred had a worker been in the office.”

Templeman makes exceptions for low-income workers and the self-employed, and the tax would be paid on something of a sliding scale: Employers would be responsible for the tax when they do not make a permanent desk available to an employee, while employees who do have a permanent desk would pay the tax for each workday not spent using it. 

Templeman estimates that would create a nearly $49B windfall, which would be paid out in $1,500 grants to the estimated 29 million U.S. workers who earn less than $30K and can’t work remotely. 

“Many of these people are those who assumed the health risks of working during the pandemic and are far more ‘essential’ than their wage level suggests,” Templeman wrote.

The pandemic has driven office occupancy down, with the rising number of infections coinciding with week-over-week drops in occupancy in major U.S. cities. Deutsche Bank itself issued guidance instructing investment banking staff in the Americas to work from home “until further notice.”

If implemented, it isn’t clear whether the revenues and resultant payouts would reach Templeman’s projections because of differing models for the permanence of remote work. While some maintain a mass return to work will happen once the pandemic is no longer a factor, others see remote work as the way of the future and predict a race to the bottom in office costs

The Deutsche Bank proposal met with opposition, which Templeman anticipated. Jared Walczak, vice president of state projects with the Center for State Tax Policy at the Tax Foundation, wrote a rebuttal that focuses in part on the fact that Templeman’s proposal is ambiguous about whether the employee or employer would pay the tax in different situations.

Whether directly or indirectly, Walczak wrote, the employee would ultimately be the one to pay the tax through reduced compensation.

“The proposed remote work tax doesn’t fix a problem; it doesn’t even identify a problem worth fixing,” Walczak wrote. “It simply enacts a penalty on those able to work remotely.”