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Rules of the road: Know when to pay for travel time

by on
in Employment Law,Human Resources

Employers know they don't have to pay Joe Worker for his typical commute into the office. But pay-for-travel questions often get much stickier, especially when they involve non-exempt workers, several work sites or overnight travel.

One of the best ways to navigate the twists and turns of the issue is to figure out whether the travel is mainly for your company's benefit or the employee's benefit. In general, you'll have to pay for travel that benefits you, but not for travel benefiting the worker.

Here are the most important rules to keep in mind:

Home-to-work travel

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Portal-to-Portal Act (an amendment to the FLSA), regular travel back and forth to work doesn't count as working time unless the employee actually does work en route. This is true even if your work site is a moving target. It doesn't matter whether the employee works at a fixed location or different job sites.

But if you require employees to report to a central location to receive their assignments, supplies and tools, then travel time from the central site to the job site is paid time.

One way to get around this: Give workers the option to report to a central location or to report directly to a job site. That way, the travel time to either place is not considered compensable work time.

All in a day's work

Travel that is a regular part of the worker's daily duties must be counted as hours worked because it's con-sidered "all in a day's work" by federal law.

This includes travel to different job sites during the workday or time spent driving from customer to customer. It clearly benefits your business, so you'll have to pay.

Day-trippers

The question gets more complicated when an employee travels out of town on a day trip.

Typically, all travel time on day trips is counted except meal periods if the employee travels to another city or job location on assignment. But travel between the employee's home and the train station or airport isn't paid because it falls under the home-to-work rule, even if the travel time to the airport far exceeds the worker's normal commute.

Consider this example: Let's say a nonexempt employee will fly to a one-day seminar. He leaves his house at 6 a.m. and drives an hour to the airport. He takes a flight and lands at his destination at about 8:30 a.m. It takes him another half-hour to ride a taxi to the seminar site.

The seminar starts at 9 a.m. and lasts until 4 p.m. The employee visits with friends and colleagues at the seminar until 5 p.m., then travels back to the airport by 5:30 p.m. to catch a 6 p.m. flight that arrives back at 7:30 p.m. It takes him about an hour to get from the airport to home.

How much of this time should be paid?

Answer: The employee isn't paid for the commute to the airport; that's home-to-work time. He is paid for the time spent traveling via plane and taxi to the seminar. And he's also paid for the time spent at the mandatory seminar.

You don't have to pay for the time he spent mingling after the seminar, but you should pay for the time spent in the taxi and the plane on the way back. You don't have to pay for the drive home from the airport because, again, it's work-to-home time.

Another important note: Let's say an employee volunteered to drive other co-workers from the office to home. You need to pay for that time because the driver is "working."

Your compensation obligation changes again if the employee is on an out-of-town trip that requires an overnight stay. In these situations, you must count travel during normal working hours, no matter what the day of the week.

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