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Must you pay employees for the commute? Sometimes, yes

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in Human Resources

If you think you don't have to start paying hourly employees until they arrive at the official job site, think again.

While it's true that you don't normally need to compensate employees for their home-to-work commute, you might have to pay for the travel time if you impose restrictions on that commute or require them to stop along the way.

U.S. Labor Department rules consider travel time to be paid work time if it's part of the employee's "principal activity" and it benefits the employer.

As a recent federal court ruling shows, imposing even minimal requirements on employees—such as filling up the company car at a particular gas station or stopping at the post office on the drive home from work—can turn normal commuting time into compensable time under the FLSA. That's true even if the company-mandated "pit stop" doesn't lengthen employees' commute.

Bottom line: Beware of placing any restrictions on the manner in which employees travel to the work site unless you're prepared to pay for that time.

Recent case: Field engineers for a Florida county needed to drive work trucks to job sites. So, they'd first drive their own cars to the county parking garage and pick up the trucks. The county didn't pay engineers for their time driving the county truck to the first work site of the day, reasoning that it was unpaid "commuting time." The engineers disagreed and sued under the FLSA for back wages.

The 11th Circuit sided with the engineers, concluding that making them stop at the garage at the beginning and end of the day was "an inconvenient detour for the employees who, at the end of the workday, could not drive directly home." That inconvenience made it paid time rather than commuting time. (Burton v. Hillsborough County, No. 10247, 11th Cir., 2006) 

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