Reimbursement Ethics

A reader writes in with the following query about reimbursement for academic travel:

The time lag between when one must spend money on flights for a work trip, and the time that those expenses get reimbursed, can often be as much as 6 months or more. The money is often spent well in advance of the trip, and reimbursed well after. People with sufficient money of their own could pay for these trips in advance without using credit, but many cannot. For them, that is debt, often on a credit card, that incurs interest over that period. The interest charge is an unreimbursed expense for the traveler.

There is no financial incentive for the reimbursing institution to shorten this time lag, since they earn interest on holding the funds for as long as possible. This raises some questions of fairness. One example is this: would it be reasonable for a traveler to submit, for reimbursement, a further claim in the amount of the interest charges? Frankly, I cannot see why not—it is part of the total cost of the travel. Interestingly, by the way, the lag may affect both senior and junior academics: senior people may face this more than others because they tend to take more, and more expensive, trips, while more junior people will feel each such burden more acutely having (often) less income and wealth. 

The amounts involved may (or may not) be small, but that doesn’t count against seeking reimbursement for other small expenses, such as cab fares. The amounts may involve a significant amount of variability owing to people’s credit situations, but such variability is present in other reimbursed expenses, such as meals (and in any event, a standardized amount set for all travelers regardless of their individual interest expenses, analogous to a per diem, would be better for them than nothing.) I hadn’t thought of the issue before. Readers, what do you think?

Geneviève Gallant, “The Walkway”

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