Reader 1: I was contacted for an interview by a nonprofit organization that advocates for homeless pets. I had heard that while being vegan wasn’t a requirement for employment at this organization, there would be restrictions on what I could bring into the office (certain foods, leather products, etc.), and only vegan meals would be reimbursed as business trip expenses. After the organization confirmed that that was its policy, I canceled the interview because I knew I wasn’t going to fit in there. But is that policy legal?
Karla: It makes sense that an organization with a specific mission would want its representatives to practice what it preaches on the company’s dime and time. And an organization that likely attracts meat-free staffers may simply want to provide an environment that is sensitive to their sensibilities.
Employers can prohibit any workplace activities they choose — even otherwise legal activities such as smoking or carrying firearms — as long as the restrictions don’t discriminate against a legally protected class of individuals. And federal law, at least, offers no special protection to omnivores.
“The only potential work-around is if this policy somehow impacts someone’s disability or religion,” says Elaine Fitch, employment attorney at Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch. For example, an organization with 15 or more employees would have to make an exception to allow an animal-derived drug to treat a qualifying medical condition under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Likewise, the meal reimbursement policy would be legal as long as it doesn’t somehow impinge on your health or religious practice, or some other protected status. I’d have to admire the dedication of an employer willing to scrutinize itemized restaurant receipts to make sure its money wasn’t being misspent.
Reader 2: I received a $5 coffee gift card at work as a prize. This statement was included: “By accepting this gift, you acknowledge you will be subject to federal income, Medicare, and SS taxes on the amount of the gift. Cash equivalents must be reported as taxable employee income to National Payroll Services. ...” For real? It’s $5. I might as well send the card to the IRS.
Karla: I ran your issue by Frank Stitely, CPA and partner at Stitely & Karstetter. He explained that although cash equivalents such as gift cards usually have to be reported to the IRS as income, your card would qualify as a “de minimis work fringe” — “de minimis” being Latin for “seriously?” Stitely notes that if the gift card were considered taxable income, “the employer would have to include it on [your] W-2 form” — not just fob the responsibility off on you with an ominous disclaimer. So keep the card and enjoy your coffee.
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