Yes, we can! This is the bottom line of this article. Yes, we can convince the Commission to do the right thing, even if it takes a lot of pressure (and more pressure) and notes (and more notes). After many discussions and meetings, DG HR has agreed in its Coronavirus update #23 to reimburse the costs for a screen and an ergonomic chair with ceilings of €150 and €200, respectively. While the reimbursement process has only just been set out  (and for seconded national experts (SNEs) is still being worked on ), this is a huge win for our colleagues, and we take the opportunity to thank all of you who have supported us during the last 8 months while we fought this uphill battle. A special thanks goes to the colleagues who used our template to request a reimbursement. While DG HR has refused these Art. 90.1 requests, the sheer number of them proved that there is a real need. This is your victory.
Screen and chair
Having said that, we should stress that we consider the amounts to be too low  and the rules too restrictive. This is not just an ‘always ask for more’ attitude, but based on real facts. DIGIT published tips for a perfect home office in May 2020, including several examples of suitable screens. Let’s have a look (prices at amazon.de as of 11.11.2020).
So, of the three suggestions by DIGIT, only one is available for a price below €150.
Let’s now look at the chairs. In 2017, the German consumer organisation ‘Stiftung Warentest’ tested a couple of office chairs for use in a home office, within the price range of €150-€300. The winner was a (no longer available) model from Ikea, so it was not a luxury contest. However, all the ‘good’ models cost more than €200.
N.B. We have linked to the consumer website so that you can get an idea for a possible purchase, in case you are still looking for a chair.
Further, we call upon DG HR to extend the criteria for reimbursement. Depending on the type of laptop, the number of USB ports is extremely limited, essentially forcing colleagues to buy additional non-reimbursable kit (e.g. a docking station or USB hub). Moreover, a separate keyboard is not a luxury article, proven by the fact that we all have one in the office. The same goes for a quality desk – what good is an ergonomic chair if you must use it at the kitchen table with an unsuitable height?
Contract and temporary agents
Finally, DG HR wants contract agents and temporary agents who leave the Commission before 5 years have passed, counting from the date of the reimbursement, to pay some part of the amount back. This is a bad joke.
- It took the Commission over 8 months to react. Now, they give themselves even more time by not choosing the date of the purchase, but the date of the reimbursement for the calculation. It is hardly the fault of these colleagues that the Commission makes decisions at a snail’s pace.
- Contract agents can only stay at the Commission for 6 years. Adding the 8 months of the confinement to these 5 years means that virtually every single contract agent will be affected by this. That is almost one quarter of all colleagues and not some particular, isolated case!
- A depreciation period of 5 years is unheard of for computer equipment! In ruling 900.140, a Belgian court considered that ‘a period of 3 years may be considered reasonable for the depreciation of the laptop.’ (original quote in Dutch: ‘Een periode van 3 jaar mag als redelijk worden beschouwd voor de afschrijving van de laptop’). So, Belgian tax authorities consider that your IT equipment has a value of €0 after just 3 years, yet the Commission still wants some money back even then. This is not a Belgian exception: the same period is used by German tax authorities (look for point 18.104.22.168). Moreover, the reference date is the date of purchase, not the date of whenever the Commission finally gets its act together.
- We also doubt the cost-effectiveness of this partial back payment: how much working time will HR need to invest in dealing with all the individual invoices, different periods of usage and corner cases? This is but another example of DG HR’s ill-thought-out proposal. A lump sum payment could have been a better alternative.
- And finally, could we please just stop discriminating against temporary employees? With the current proposal, a general director with an AD16 salary (€19 000/month) who retires in 2 years can just keep the money. A function grade 1 (FGI) contract agent (€2 074/month in grade 1/step 1) has to pay some money back. On which planet would this be considered as ‘simpler, fairer and more attractive career structures, for all grades of staff, at all locations’? In case you wonder about the cited phrase, it is part of the ‘talent’ pillar of the new HR strategy, currently under discussion.
EEAS has its own scheme
As a final word: the European External Action Service (EEAS) employs a different scheme to provide homeworking (IT) equipment. They purchase the screen and a keyboard and “lend” it to the colleagues (e.g. local agents in delegations). If they leave the EEAS, they have to give it back. There are pros and cons about this different approach: on the one hand, colleagues do not have to bother about purchasing items at the end of the world and the EEAS can ensure that the IT equipment is fit for purpose. On the other hand, the EEAS’ scheme does not include office furniture.
As always, if you have questions or comments, feel free to contact us. A second scheme is being worked on for 2021: read our article on the confusion.  eSIRE instructions published 30.11.2020 and updated 4.1.2021.  Individuals cannot purchase the same equipment as the Commission at the same price as the Commission [*]. Teleworking guidelines 20.11.2020 p.9 ‘This ceiling is established on the basis of the average price that the Commission spends for procuring similar equipment.’ [*] Added 4.3.2021: There is now a special chair offer with Interstuhl (we hope ‘Holland’ there is a typo for the Netherlands. If not, please let us know). [**] Added 8.4.2021: the reimbursement scheme has again been extended. ‘Your purchase must now have been made between 9 March 2020 and 1 June 2021 (inclusive). You must submit your request for reimbursement before midnight (Brussels time) on 30 June 2021.’