Q. I am a warehouse guy for a big box type store and travel to open new stores or rehab old stores for two weeks out of each month. The company pays for hotels that most often offer a free continental breakfast and reimburse us $25 a day for food. That is nowhere near enough for good food and three meals a day. Is there a minimum that companies can give you to pay for food when you are on the road?
A. Many people think business travel sounds exciting, until they start to do it on a regular basis. Business travel eats into your personal life, social life, and after gaining weight and losing sleep many travelers developed methods to maintain their physical health. Eating well and exercise are at the top. Your current per diem (the daily allowance) amount may be making that more difficult.
Though it’s generally not legally required, employers almost always agree to reimburse employees for travel expenses. If they didn’t, it would be harder to get employees to travel – and harder to keep them from leaving to work elsewhere. To find out more about how employee expenses are handled, I consulted with Attorney Patrick Bannon, a Boston based employment attorney with McCarter & English, who said, “In Massachusetts and most other states, it’s generally up to the employee and the company to agree on who will pay for the employee’s meals while the employee is traveling for business. When an employee is just barely earning the minimum wage (currently $8.00 per hour in Massachusetts), not reimbursing the reasonable cost of the employee’s expenses while traveling might violate the minimum wage law. Otherwise, both Massachusetts law and federal law let employers and employees reach their own agreements on the subject.”
The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) provides information for the federal government, which many employers use as a guideline for their policies. Since rates can vary by location, the GSA provides a web site (GSA.gov/perdiem) with a search by state function to help employers and employees determine, by geographic area, what is considered reasonable for meal reimbursement.
Attorney Bannon points out that, “California is one noteworthy state which requires employers to reimburse employees for business expenses. But whether the California law truly benefits employees is questionable: employers can always take expense reimbursements into account when setting an employee’s salary.”
“By any measure, $25 per day for lunch and dinner is pretty thin,” says Bannon. The federal government’s 2012 rate for three meals per day plus incidental expenses in Massachusetts ranges from $46 to $71 per day. If you are considered a highly valued employee, and are secure in your role, you might consider gathering some data on the cost of reasonable, healthy meals by GSA guidelines and what other local employers typically reimburse, and then thank about asking the company to increase the per diem rate. You might want to leave an article on your manager’s desk, or in the human resources office. If you don’t want to rock the boat, says Attorney Bannon, you may need to gather information about bargain restaurants and where to get good pizza – or start looking for a more generous employer.