The rule is straightforward: commuting to and from work is usually not compensable, but traveling during the work day must be paid. But this can be complicated by many factors, from technology to multiple worksites to pre-shift work. The basic question that courts ask is, “When does the workday begin?”
Many states, including New York, generally follow the federal guidelines for commute time compensation. However, if you work in California, be sure to check out the rules specific to California. California has some of the strongest worker protections in the country, so you may be entitled to even more commute compensation.
If you are driving or taking public transit from your home to a workplace, your employer probably does not need to pay for this time. This is considered a normal condition of employment that does not require compensation. However, travel time that is outside of the normal commute—which depends upon the job and the industry—may require payment. If you run personal errands or take personal time during travel time, this may not be compensable.
If you are driving a company vehicle, you are most likely not entitled to pay for your commute, even if your employer is able to track you, requires you to have your phone on, or prohibits you from using the car for personal errands.
Loading and carrying tools and equipment from home is probably not compensable. Likewise, receiving a job assignment during a commute does not necessarily make that time compensable.
When Your Workday Begins
In contrast, if your workday begins before your commute or with your commute, you may be entitled to pay.
If you are required to report to a separate site to pick up equipment or vehicles, drop off your vehicle or receive instructions, your workday starts with reporting at that initial site. Any travel time between that initial site, such as a yard or central office, and your main job site(s) must be paid.
If you are required to transport specialized equipment or if transporting equipment is an important part of your job, this transportation time may be compensable. While there is no set list of what such equipment may be, it generally does not include items such as laptops, gloves and hats, or paperwork.
The law is complicated for work performed at home or during your commute. If you perform substantial work at home before you commute, such as taking a half hour to plan routes and prepare for site visits, or during your commute, such as working while taking public transit, you may be entitled to pay for that time. However, at-home activities such as making brief daily reports, particularly if it only takes a few minutes and the report may be sent anytime during a broad window of time, may not require compensation.
Special Trips and Assignments
If you are traveling to a special site that is outside your usual commute, at least some of the time you spend traveling may be compensable. Specifically, you may be entitled to pay for any time beyond the time you would usually spend commuting. In other words, if you usually spend 30 minutes driving to work but are placed on an assignment 2 hours away, you may be entitled to recover for 1.5 hours.
If you are traveling for an overnight trip, the rules become more complicated. As a general matter, you must be paid during normal work hours plus for all time you are actually working beyond those hours. However, you are probably not required to be paid for time that is both outside your regular work hours and that you do not spend performing actual work, such as dinner and sleep hours.
California’s rules for compensation commute time provide heightened protections for workers who are traveling at the behest of their employer.
In addition to the situations above, California also requires payment for travel (and waiting, if applicable) time for travel requirement by an employer. This does not pertain to driving your personal vehicle to a work site but rather to situations such as being required to take a company shuttle or bus to a job site.
California also provides for commute pay if (1) employees are required to carry tools or employer equipment or drive a company from home to a job site and (2) as a result, they cannot use the commute for their own purposes (ie cannot run errands or carpool with friends).
Both of these rules apply to situations that are required by an employer, not simply where an employer provides an option for an employee to a take a company shuttle, drive a company vehicle, or carry tools.
For more reading, visit the discussion of commute compensation in this California Department of Industrial Relations wage and hour fact sheet, this United States Department of Labor fact sheet on calculating work time and these Department of Labor travel time materials.
These are just some general guidelines, but each situation is different. If you have any questions about whether you should be paid for your commute, please contact us, and we will be happy to discuss your individual situation.