If your organization employs people who drive as part of their job, then your organization faces employee vehicle risk.
A mobile employee needs a vehicle to fulfill his or her job responsibilities, often working in sales, light service, account management, or merchandising. Mobile employees typically drive thousands of miles annually and often constitute the face of the organization.
These valuable employees carry a certain degree of risk. Corporate risk includes any potential threats to a company’s wellbeing, especially factors that can result in financial loss. Every organization employs a set of practices to manage risk and prevent exposure to losses.
If you have employees operating vehicles for your company, you need to develop a set of risk management practices specifically tailored to mobile employee risk.
For starters, car accidents. Every time a mobile employee hits the road, you’re exposed – to vicarious liability for damages, to negligent entrustment lawsuits (i.e. respondeat superior), to plain old bad publicity.
And then you’ve got labor codes and IRS regulations to consider. How do you know the company is fully complying with the complex system of laws governing the reimbursement of mobile employees? California reimbursement laws are particularly challenging and will get their own chapter below.
Speaking of reimbursing employees – if you don’t do it right, you’re also exposed to uncontrollable, escalating costs.
Every year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) produces data on vehicle crashes in the United States. In 2016, police reported an estimated 7,277,000 crashes
That’s nearly 20,000 per day – about 8 accidents every minute. Let that sink in.
When you consider traffic volume, you know that most accidents occur during the workday – when your mobile employees are carrying out their jobs.
It’s not a question of if but when an employee causes an accident. But it’s the employee’s fault, not the company’s, right? Well, that depends on how you look at it.
The biggest risks you face involve the twin legal doctrines of vicarious liability and respondeat superior – when an employer is held responsible for the actions of an employee.
When a motorist gets hit by another motorist, they and their auto insurance company want to make sure the other motorist’s insurance picks up the tab. And if injuries occur, they are probably ringing up a ton of medical bills.
But what if the at-fault driver’s auto insurance can’t cover all these costs? That’s when the victims, knowing that the driver was on the job and relying on the tort law doctrine of respondeat superior will come after the driver’s employer.
That’s why every organization should have a policy that sets minimum auto insurance liability limits for all mobile employees – and sets them high. That’s why every organization should also regularly verify that each employee meets the minimum auto insurance requirements.
Employee auto insurance is not the only form of vicarious liability for employee-caused car accidents. There’s another threat: negligent entrustment.
Negligent entrustment is a tort law concept that refers to the insufficient vetting of an employee by an employer.
If the victim of the crash can prove that the at-fault driver’s employer was negligent in entrusting that employee with responsibilities that required operating a vehicle, then the victims can sue the company.
All they have to do is convince a judge that the employee was incompetent, reckless, or
This is why your organization should have an employee vehicle safety policy. This policy should require routine motor vehicle record (MVR) checks, promote safe driving, and detail a process for addressing incidents that increase a driver’s risk profile.
To reduce vicarious liability for employee-involved auto accidents, it’s important to follow best practices. Let’s look at a few.
No matter what you do, if you have employees on the road, vehicle accidents will occur within the company. Risk management means protecting the company and the employee from unnecessary financial exposure. Here’s how to do it:
Every car insurance policy includes three liability limits that your company should dictate for each employee:
Bodily injury per person: The maximum amount the insurer will pay for a single person’s injuries, per incident.
Bodily injury per accident: The maximum total amount the insurer will pay for all injured persons, per incident.
Property damage: The maximum amount the insurer will pay for all damages to another person’s property, per incident.
Nearly every state requires these insurance coverages, but no state sets them high enough to cover a serious accident involving multiple injuries. California law, for example, requires a minimum coverage of $15,000 for bodily injury per person, $30,000 for bodily injury per accident, and $5,000 for property damage – expressed as a 15/30/5 policy
In 2013, however, the Insurance Research Council reported that the average bodily injury claim was $15,443. That means half of all bodily injury claims exceed California’s minimum requirements for auto insurance. Very few states require anything beyond a 25/50/15 policy – fine for a fender-bender but not for a serious accident.
If you don’t have a policy requiring a minimum amount of employee vehicle insurance coverage, or your policy merely mandates the state minimum coverage, then your company is a ticking time bomb of risk.
If you really want to protect both the company and employees, you need to go with a 250/500/100 policy for all employees. The popular 100/300/50 policy could still leave you exposed. A vehicle accident that causes over $300,000 in medical claims is rare, but it does happen. With dozens or even hundreds of employees on the road every week, year after year, do the math – a rarity becomes an increasing possibility.
But make sure employees can afford the higher auto insurance coverage. It’s not right to mandate a higher amount to protect the organization but not bump up the car allowance or reimbursement amount. It also violates the reimbursement laws in some states, including California, Illinois, and Massachusetts, if you require coverage that exceeds the state minimum but fail to reimburse employees fully for it.
An unenforced policy is no policy. Employees may drop coverage or decrease coverage in order to save money. You need to make sure this doesn’t happen.
Since most car insurance policies renew every six months, it makes sense to conduct bi-annual employee insurance verifications. No matter how good your policy is, employee compliance ultimately determines your risk.
The key to reducing the risk of negligent entrustment is a written employee vehicle safety policy. Getting your ducks in a row, taking swift action when necessary, and keeping excellent written records is your best protection in the event of an employee-caused auto accident.
Follow these tips to develop a robust vehicle safety policy:
In the case of negligent entrustment, what you don’t know will hurt you. You cannot plead ignorance if an employee causes a car accident, and it turns out that
Most organizations check employee motor vehicle records (MVRs) as part of the hiring process. This is a great practice, but it has to continue on a regular basis. Driving records change over time. In a short period of time, an employee may rack up a couple of speeding tickets, or even worse, pick up a DUI. You have to know as soon as possible so that you can take appropriate actions.
Because negligent entrustment lawsuits can cost millions of dollars, some organizations opt for continuous monitoring in lieu of annual MVR checks. This alternative is expensive, but the employer knows immediately when an employee has been charged with a moving violation.
Not all incidents that appear on an MVR check are equally severe. Establish a rating system that categorizes employees as low-risk, medium-risk, or high-risk. Update each employee’s score as new information comes in.
Most states maintain a points system to indicate driver safety. The number of points on a driver’s record (hopefully none!) can be a helpful indicator. But be aware that different states use different points systems. For example, driving without a license generates 10 points in Texas but only 2 points in California. As a result, you need a points equalization system that translates different state’s points into the company’s internal risk-scoring system.
An employee with a low-risk vehicle score needs no correction – just keep checking MVRs for changes. But to protect the company from vicarious liability, you need to intervene when an employee has a violation. Interventions could include:
The higher the employee’s risk of an accident, the higher the company’s risk of negligent entrustment. Every company needs to decide what’s an acceptable level of risk, but in our litigious society, it doesn’t take much to establish vicarious liability against the employer.
Maintain a clear written record of all safety policies. Regularly refresh employee understanding. Put all interventions in writing, and update an employee’s vehicle risk profile every time a corrective action occurs. If a negligent entrustment suit occurs, these records can prove that you took steps to reduce an employee’s safety risk.
You cannot prevent all accidents, but you may be able to prevent some. The key is to establish clear expectations for safe driving, to reinforce these expectations, and to give consequences for violations.
First and foremost, you must address distracted driving. A 2013 report by the National Safety Council estimated that 27% of car accidents involved distraction due to talking or texting on a cell phone. And 98% of respondents to a 2014 survey agreed that texting while driving is dangerous, yet 74% did it anyway. If three-quarters of the populace texts while driving – even though it’s illegal in 48 states, and everyone knows it’s dangerous – you can bet your employees do it.
It is vital that the company not only establish policies that prohibit cell phone use while driving but also that the company creates a culture of compliance. If mobile employees feel pressure to conduct business while driving, they may follow company “practice” rather than company policy.
For more ideas of how to incentivize good driving, read OSHA's "Guidelines for Employers to Reduce Motor Vehicle Crashes."
Car accidents may be the most obvious source of risk, but state labor codes pose a more subtle set of risks. Several states have added specific protections to the take-home pay of employees. Under these employee indemnification codes, employers that don’t fully protect their employees’ pay in accordance with the law can be subject to fines and lawsuits
These “pro-employee” states include California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, North Dakota, South Dakota, Michigan, and New York
No state has a stricter employee expense indemnification code than California. If you can comply with California’s employee reimbursement laws, you’ll be protected anywhere.
CA Labor Code Section 2802(a) states that:
“An employer shall indemnify his or her employee for all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence of the discharge of his or her duties, or of his or her obedience to the directions of the employer.”
Furthermore, Section 2802(c) defines “necessary expenditures or losses” to include “all reasonable costs.”
California's indemnification labor law clearly requires employers to reimburse employees for all reasonable expenses related to the business use of a personal vehicle. (Business use does not include the commute between home and work.)
These expenses include more than just gas. Tires, maintenance, depreciation, auto insurance, taxes, and registration all can be considered reasonable costs.
The California Supreme Court laid it out in the 2007 decision Gattuso v. Harte-Hanks Shoppers, Inc. According to the Court, the following methods can comply with the law:
1. The IRS mileage rate – paying a cents-per-mile rate set by the federal government each year to guide individual tax deductions for business miles driven.
2. The actual expense method – reimbursing the actual expenses, demonstrated through employee receipts.
3. The lump-sum method – pays a car allowance based on the employee’s personal vehicle expenses; this car allowance must provide full reimbursement.
None of these methods provides a perfect solution, however. Each carries distinct advantages and disadvantages:
|Mileage Reimbursement||Simple to administer||May over-reimburse high-mileage drivers and under-reimburse low-mileage drivers|
|Actual Expense||The most precise method.||Administratively difficult; requires tedious record-keeping and tracking receipts|
|Lump Sum or Allowance||Simple to administer||Taxes reduce the take-home amount, making this method the most inefficient|
Most companies opt for the IRS mileage rate or a monthly car allowance because these are the easiest to administer. However, both create a problem of inequity.
Think about it: different employees experience different costs, yet the employer reimburses them the same amount. Territory size, employee role, and geographically-sensitive costs all differ across a single company.
Not only is a standard reimbursement unfair to the employees with the highest costs,
Even worse, inequitable compensation can dampen productivity and increase attrition rates, further increasing company costs and adding overall risk.
The answer is...none of the above! The best method is fixed and variable rate reimbursement, also known as FAVR. The next chapter will explain why this approach works better than all others.
Also known as a FAVR car allowance, fixed and variable rate reimbursement divides mobile employee expenses into fixed and variable categories:
|Fixed expenses||Variable expenses|
|Taxes and registration||Tires|
The employer then pays a fixed monthly amount plus a variable mileage rate, all based on cost data for each employee’s territory and garage zip code. This means different employees receive different reimbursement amounts that accurately reflect their reimbursement needs.
Consider the advantages:
Yes, the actual expense method carries each of these advantages as well. But there’s a reason most companies avoid it: the administrative expense of time and energy spent tracking and reporting receipts.
True, a FAVR car allowance involves greater administrative complexity than mileage reimbursement or a traditional car allowance, but a number of third-party organizations have created cost-effective ways to administer a FAVR vehicle program, making it the best option for a company seeking to comply with CA Labor Code 2802.
The fact is, you have to treat reimbursement of California employees differently from reimbursement of other employees. It's an expensive state in which to own and operate a vehicle. In 2019, the gas tax began the process of increasing incrementally, based on inflation. Many motorists in California are now paying $5 per gallon. If you have California drivers but are not using FAVR to reimburse them, there's a good chance you are either violating the employee indemnification law, or you are facing out of control company costs.
If you would like to learn more about car allowances, mileage reimbursements, or FAVR vehicle programs, we have created a helpful guide to each form of employee vehicle reimbursement.
Everything You Need to Know about Car Allowances - Your definitive guide to developing an effective car allowance policy in 2022.
Everything You Need to Know about Mileage Reimbursements - Your definitive guide to mileage reimbursements for personal vehicles in 2022.
The Ultimate Guide to Understanding FAVR - How a customizable, tax-free vehicle reimbursement helps companies stay on mission after tax reform and during the pandemic.
Adopting a FAVR vehicle plan can also help protect your company from some of the risks associated with our country’s complex tax code.
What kind of risks are we talking about?
1. Failure to properly withhold taxes from a car allowance.
2. Failure charge back an employee for personal use of a company vehicle.
3. Failure to charge back an employee for personal use of a company fuel card.
To understand these risks and how to avoid them, it helps to distinguish between two IRS categories for employee vehicle reimbursement:
A reimbursement requiring employees to substantiate the business connection of a expense within a reasonable amount of time. Employees must pay back any excess advances in a reasonable amount of time. An accountable plan is non-taxable.
A payment that does not require employees to substantiate business connection of an expense. Any non-accountable amounts are considered income to the employee and must be included as wages with appropriate tax withholdings.
If your organization uses a non-accountable method such as a car allowance, you need to make sure that you are properly withholding taxes each month from employees. An employee in the 32% tax bracket receiving a $600/month allowance could have as much as $238 withheld for federal income taxes and FICA. And don’t forget that the company needs to pay its share of FICA (7.65%) on that amount.
The tax waste generated by a non-accountable vehicle reimbursement plan can be massive, making the extra time spent administering an IRS accountable plan worth it.
But even an accountable plan can generate taxable income. If an employee doesn’t pay back excess advances, then the employer needs to tax the excess as income.
Many employers avoid all of this by simply paying the IRS mileage
However, as we saw above, the IRS business mileage rate creates inequities and uncontrollable costs.
Once again, the best practice to reduce tax risk would be to adopt a FAVR vehicle plan. It is an IRS-approved method to deliver non-taxable reimbursement while controlling costs and avoiding chargebacks to employees for excess payments.
Speaking of taxes, you may be wondering how the new tax law – formally known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA) – has affected things.
The biggest tax reform in 30 years was passed December 22, 2017. The TCJA lowered taxes for both individuals and businesses starting in 2018. But it also seriously impacts business reimbursements.
Previously, when filing taxes, a mobile employee could deduct any unreimbursed business expenses on Schedule A, after calculating these expenses on Form 2106. This always meant that an employer could say, “Just write it off on your taxes,” if the car allowance or reimbursement plan didn’t completely cover travel expenses.
But the TCJA has eliminated that tax deduction until 2025. For the next few years, employers must make sure that they fully cover employee’s business expenses, or else….
For starters, it’s unfair not to fully cover employees' vehicle expenses. But that’s not the only issue at stake. Because indemnification labor laws in states like California and Massachusetts require full reimbursement, any organization that was relying on the tax deduction loophole will now be exposed.
Employees who were content to just file for a hefty tax deduction for business mileage will seek to protect their income one way or another. They may drive less to save money (if they receive a car allowance), or they may report extra miles to increase their reimbursement (if they receive a mileage rate). Or, if they work in CA, MA, IL, or another employee-friendly state, they may just file a labor code complaint or a lawsuit.
Or they might just leave for a company that does fully reimburse its employees.
The 2017 tax reform opens up a new set of tax risks, and it’s vital that your organization take a close look at its car allowance or vehicle reimbursement policies.
Once again (at the risk of sounding like a broken record), we recommend that you consider adopting a FAVR reimbursement plan to ensure full reimbursement of all employees without losing control of costs.
While there’s no failsafe way to protect an organization from mobile employee risks, there are many concrete steps you can take to reduce risk. Take stock now. Review the recommendations on this page. Commit yourself to adopting at least one in the next month.
1. Set minimum employee auto insurance coverage at 100/300/50 (better) or 250/500/100 (best).
2. Verify employee auto insurance coverage every six months to protect your company from vicarious liability.
3. Create a written employee vehicle safety policy and enforce it as a protection against car accidents and negligent entrustment lawsuits.
4. Conduct yearly employee motor vehicle record checks and intervene if necessary to prevent respondeat superior liability.
5. Adopt a fixed and variable rate reimbursement program to comply with indemnification codes, eliminate tax waste, and ensure equitable vehicle reimbursements. (Remember, reimbursement of California employees requires a different approach because their costs greatly exceed others' vehicle costs.)
But don’t stop there.