How to Ensure Fair Vehicle Reimbursements for Mobile Employees
Technology can help track fixed and variable driving costs
By Stephen Miller, CEBS Apr 3, 2018
Employers often reimburse workers for using their own vehicles to meet with clients, attend professional events, make deliveries or fulfill other duties. Tracking, processing and reimbursing accurately for these costs is not always easy, though, particularly for companies with many mobile workers.
Common ways to “make employees whole” for their business-driving expenses are:
- Flat car allowance. Employers provide employees a flat car allowance, such as $400 per month, to cover the cost of fuel, wear and tear, tires and more.
- FAVR programs. Employers reimburse employees under a fixed and variable rate (FAVR) reimbursement program, in which employees are reimbursed for fixed costs (such as insurance, taxes and registration fees) and variable vehicle expenses (such as fuel and maintenance). The reimbursements are tax-free to employees if certain expense-accounting requirements are met.
In 2018, for computing the tax-exempted allowance under a FAVR plan, the IRS announced earlier this yearthat standard automobile costs may not exceed $27,300 for vehicles excluding trucks and vans or $31,000 for trucks and vans.
- Standard mileage rate.The IRS annually issues its standard mileage rate, also called the safe harbor rate. The mileage reimbursement rate for 2018 is 54.5 cents for business miles driven, up from 53.5 cents in 2017. This rate—based on the nationwide average cost of operating a vehicle in the prior year—is intended to give taxpayers an easy way to write off their tax-deductible costs for unreimbursed driving expenses. The IRS, however, does not recommend it as a method of direct reimbursement.
Car Allowances, FAVR or Standard Mileage Rate?
“In many cases, a car allowance program is administered due to its perceived ease of use,” said Danielle Lackey, general counsel at Motus, a provider of mobile-workforce management software and fleet management programs. But while giving all workers a monthly stipend saves the time of calculating payments for each employee, “it can introduce unequal treatment within the workforce,” since mobile workers incur a wide range of expenses as they drive, she noted. “These costs vary considerably over time and also vary based on the location of the mobile worker.”
Another consideration is that flat car allowances can cost employers added FICA taxes and employees added income taxes. So “if you administer a flat car allowance of $400 to your employees, you’re actually paying $430.60 and your employees are only taking home $269.40 each month after taxes—resulting in annual tax waste of $1,934.40 per employee,” Lackey said.
“Unfortunately, gas prices cannot be forecast, and this unpredictable movement of fuel prices can negatively impact budget expense performance” with a flat car allowance, said John Domsy, vice president of CarData Consultants Inc., a provider of vehicle reimbursement programs.
However, car allowance programs “have their unique place as well,” said Dillon Blake, senior director of business development at Motus. “Like any vehicle program, car allowances have benefits and challenges and, depending on the characteristics of your company, may be the right fit for you,” such as if the company is reimbursing a handful of drivers who spend a similar amount of time on the road, he said.
While both FAVR and the standard-mileage rate programs provide tax-advantaged reimbursement for the employee if certain conditions are met, “fixed and variable is regarded as best-in-class because of the regional accuracy” when calculating actual costs, said Domsy. “The standard mileage rate is regarded as higher than actual expenses but fair when used on an occasional basis,” he noted.
“FAVR is the most-accurate of the IRS-approved mileage reimbursement methods because it results in personalized mileage reimbursement rates based on each employee’s costs to operate their car,” Lackey said.
Because reimbursements through a FAVR program are based on specific vehicle usage costs, “tracking, processing and reimbursing accurately for these costs is not always easy,” Lackey pointed out, given that many still rely on manual mileage reporting techniques, like handwritten paper logs or spreadsheets.
[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: Do we have to reimburse personal auto mileage for business-related trips?]
Automated software tools used in FAVR programs can help HR and payroll departments to account for fixed and variable driving costs, Lackey said. For instance, these programs can “automatically capture mileage in the field—and automatically populate IRS-compliant daily mileage logs—and monitor driving costs throughout the country to calculate and reimburse employees’ actual costs,” she explained. “Technology-driven data like this helps companies to treat their mobile workers equally by reimbursing actual expenses.”
“However, it’s important to choose the right technology,” Blake said. “Some solutions provide less-intrusive models that allow drivers to submit their business mileage and odometer [reading], rather than capture every single trip and provide it to the business” through so-called telematics that track vehicle locations, he noted.
Telematics solutions may make more sense when managing service vehicles, such as trucks, vans or logoed vehicles, Blake said.
When selecting appropriate technology to manage reimbursement programs, “HR directors need to carefully consider their mileage reimbursement policies” and how employee-owned vehicles are being used, Lackey advised.
Examples of smartphone applications for tracking and logging business miles and other expenses include Microsoft’s MileIQ, CarData’s Mobile Interactive Route (Mi-Route), and the Motus mileage tracking app.