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Compassionate Commuting

Consider an individual who lives and works in the UK, but has learned her mother is terminally ill in Norway. She asks for—and is granted—a “relocation” of sorts so that she can work remotely and live in Norway to be near her parents. And what about the employee who was able to work in the company’s facility in Greece to be near his military wife, but then she is transferred to another location where the company has no offices? He makes the case to move his job to the new location, and receives some assistance to do so.

And so we have another theme for global workforce professionals to master: “compassionate commuting.” It’s what happens when an employee has a personal need for a certain location, and the company wants to help them get there. And it’s another way for us to see how mobility issues are woven into the fabric of our nation’s workforce.

Said one corporate HR manager: “In some cases where the family might otherwise move with the employee to a location with low infrastructure and poor housing and schooling, it’s best for the family to stay in the old location and have the employee move permanently to the job, but travel (or commute) home periodically, perhaps on a four-months-on, two-weeks-off schedule. In that case, it’s critical to seek a tax experts’ counsel to figure out the tax issues, to offer preparation and counseling, and to determine how long it is advisable to extend this kind of an arrangement—there may be enough of a savings in the long run to cover the tax implication.” Worldwide ERC® Tax Counsel Pete Scott notes that, “Taxable commuting— when the value of the commuting will be imputed as income to the commuter for tax purposes—is difficult to separate from regular business travel. Providing the opportunity to commute back from one’s job for personal reasons means the employee is not really on business. Country, state, and regional laws must be considered—this can be tricky to manage from a cost and a compliance perspective.”

And what about in the U.S.? Combine a troubled global economy and an uncertain job market with aging baby boomers and sandwich-generation families, and what might emerge? A slight twist on “compassionate commuting” with other kinds of employee-requested moves. In the U.S. domestic arena, some companies have seen an increase in the number of employees interested in a commuter arrangement—with good reason in our shaky employment and housing markets. As one of our members remarked, “If you don’t know what kind of situation you’ll be in tomorrow, then holding onto your house in a familiar location can make more sense to you than uprooting your family and trying to sell your house in a lethargic market. For the employer, there’s a lot of risk inherent in an arrangement like this. For example, I’ve heard of a situation where an employee negotiated extremely extended temporary living for just himself in hopes that the housing market would improve, and then refused to complete the move when the market dropped even lower. We need to be careful about just putting a band-aid on a problem, because at the end of the day the picture can look even bleaker… and then money and time has been consumed with no talent in place at the other end.”

“This really started in our U.S. domestic division, and then some of our international assignees felt they wanted to leave their family in one place, but take the assignment for a few years,” said another member. “Sometimes we post internal jobs with or without relocation, and don’t offer assistance unless the hiring manager wants to provide it… and then we have a minimum package that comes into play.” In one manager’s words, “It’s a great retention tool if the only alternative for the employee is to leave the company, as long as it is defensible to our executive staff from a cost and productivity standpoint.”

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