By: Steven D. Hamilton, Principal, Steven D. Hamilton, CPA

October 03, 2014 4:01 pm EDT
Company cafeteria

I have a friend who lives and works on the north side of Cincinnati (or as we south-of-the-river-residents call it: “Ohio”). He works for significant company, and one of the perks is a company cafeteria. The cafeteria provides breakfast, should one choose, and of course it provides lunch. Free.

I admit I am a bit envious.

In this day and age when just about everything is taxed – at least once – you may wonder how this can happen. It has to do with Code Section 119:

(a) Meals and lodging furnished to employee, his spouse, and his dependents, pursuant to employment

There shall be excluded from gross income of an employee the value of any meals or lodging furnished to him, his spouse, or any of his dependents by or on behalf of his employer for the convenience of the employer, but only if—

(1) in the case of meals, the meals are furnished on the business premises of the employer

How did this provision come to be?

It officially entered the Code in 1954, although employers were already taking the deduction (and employees excluding the income) under administrative and judicial decisions.  Prior to 1954 there was some inconsistency on what was required for the employee to omit the income. Sometimes the courts focused exclusively on the convenience of the employer. Other times the courts would look at whether there was a compensatory reason for the meal. Depending on the focus, they could arrive at different answers, of course.

So Congress stepped-in in 1954 and gave us Section 119. There were differences between the House and Senate bills (The House did not want a convenience-of-the-employer test, but the Senate did). Both House and Senate booted out the issue of “compensatory reason.” If it were primarily for the convenience of the employer, then the meals were free. Whether the employee considered it compensatory was beside the point.

Let’s use an extreme example to understand what Congress was after. In Olkjer, for example, the taxpayer was employed at a remote location in Greenland. The employer provided meals (and, in this case, lodging also) because there was nowhere else to go.

And there any number of examples like that. Think of emergency room personnel. Could they hypothetically get in a car and go to a restaurant for lunch? Of course they could. It would not serve the hospital’s needs, however, and hence they are required to stay on premises. The same can be said for casino workers.

Fast forward a few decades and we now have Silicon Valley. Take Google, for example. If you work at the Googleplex you can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner for free. I recall that the personal chef for the Grateful Dead was one of the early chefs at Google. These companies prey on each other’s chefs, too. Facebook hired a chef away from Google, for example. Facebook now serves Thai-spiced cilantro chicken and salmon with red curry sauce. Their chef will also prepare a special meal as an employee award or recognition. These meals can be quite upscale, featuring seven courses on white tablecloth.

No doubt Section 119 has come a long way from what Congress was thinking back in 1954.

And there is the rub.

In 2013 the Wall Street Journal published an article on these cafeterias, including the question whether the provision of gourmet-level meals were intended to be tax-free. Spring forward a year or so and the IRS has included the issue in their 2014-2015 Priority Guidance Plan. It appears the IRS is shifting resources to develop tax lines-of-reasoning requiring such benefits be reported as taxable compensation to employees.

How? Actually, the direction is fairly straightforward. The IRS will challenge the perk as not being “primarily” for the convenience of the employer. They cannot challenge whether there is a “compensatory” reason, as the reports to the 1954 tax Code makes it clear that Congress was not concerned with that issue.

The companies of course argue that such perks are “primarily” for their convenience. How?

  • Encourage employees to arrive early
  • Encourage employees to stay late
  • Employees do not waste time going out to eat
  • Maximize collaboration opportunities, as employees eat together rather than taking individual cars and dining alone elsewhere
  • Help retain people and foster employee trust
  • Help attract prospective employees

You must admit, the companies have a point. My hunch is that the IRS will restrict the definition of “convenience” to require a closer connection between the cafeteria perk and the alleged convenience.

What do I think? I have been in tax practice long enough to see provisions come into the tax Code, and then see practitioners take said provisions into places and distances that Congress or the IRS never intended. There is uproar, and Congress or the IRS then cracks-down. The practitioners regroup, study tape, develop new game plans and all parties eventually take the field again for the next game. It is just the wheel and rhythm of tax law and practice.

I suspect the same will happen here.

I have over the years worked unreasonable hours, and many (not all, mind you) CPA firms will make some provision for their staff during busy season. These meals have been tax-free, as the impetus for the meal was exclusively for the convenience of the CPA firm (as far as I was concerned). There was nothing there that approached this level, however.

But then, Google and Twitter and companies like them have taken this provision into places and distances that Congress likely never intended.

I admit I am a bit envious.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author(s). Core Compass’s Terms Of Use applies.

About the author

Steven D. Hamilton is a career CPA, with extensive experience involving all aspects of tax practice, including sophisticated income tax planning and handling of tax controversy matters for closely-held businesses and high-income individuals.

IRC Section 119company cafeterias
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