Every year the IRS publishes a list of projects that are currently on its agenda. For example, the IRS may indicate through this list that it is working on a new set of procedures relating to claiming business expenses. The new 2014–2015 IRS Priority Guidance Plan, just released this September, has indicated that IRS is working on guidance relating to whether employer-provided meals offered on company premises are taxable as income to the employee. In the Priority Guidance Plan’s Employee Benefits Section B.3, the IRS listed: “Guidance under §§119 and 132 regarding employer-provided meals” in its list of projects for the upcoming year.
This could be significant for many employees who could potentially have to report as taxable income what they formerly thought were free meals provided by their employer. Currently, an employer may offer meals to employees on the work premises as a tax-free perk, if the meals are provided for the employer’s convenience. The question of whether the meals are provided for the convenience of the employer is determined, however, on the basis of all the facts and circumstances. Clearer guidance from the IRS may signal that in the future, examiners will pay closer attention to meals provided by employers.
A growing trend among employers is to provide free gourmet meals to their employees. Employers argue this is for their convenience, which if true would make the meals non-taxable. But in some instances the IRS and others have posited that such meals more closely resemble income.
The Tax Code currently sets forth some basic guidelines for how to determine whether meals are being provided “for the convenience of the employer.” First of all, an employment contract or state statute are not determinative of whether the meals are intended as compensation. Secondly, the meals must be provided for a substantial noncompensatory business reason.
Factors indicating that meals are furnished for the convenience of the employer include:
A short time available for lunch due to legitimate business reasons and not just to shorten the work day;
The need for availability of employees for emergencies;
Insufficient other eating facilities nearby; and
A standard charge for meals regardless of whether they are eaten.
The IRS has also noted in its existing regulations that meals provided simply to promote morale or goodwill of employees, to attract new employees or as a means of providing additional compensation are not considered to be furnished for the convenience of the employer.
The IRS’s current regulations contain examples of meals that the IRS has considered to be legitimately provided to employees, tax-free, because they are provided for the employer’s conveniences. These include:
Meals provided by a bank to its bank tellers to retain them on the premises during the lunch hour because the bank’s peak workload occurs during the normal lunch period; and
Meals provided to casino workers, who are required to eat their meals on the premises in order to minimize the security searches they undergo as they come and go, and to ensure that staff does not succumb to the temptations of nearby casinos rather than promptly returning to work.
Conversely, meals provided by a restaurant to a waitress on her days off are not tax-free because they are perks and not for the employer’s convenience.