The Ins and Outs of Paying Travel Time

July 29, 2019

A hypothetical scenario around paying travel time: You own a business with two locations. One is understaffed, so you ask one of the hourly employees from the other location to make a two-hour drive to go help out. She normally works until 5 p.m., but today she’s going to leave at 3p.m. to make the drive. She’ll stay in the other city overnight. Do you know if you have to pay her for her time after 5 p.m.?

If your business requires employees to travel for work, travel time is an area of the law that you have to understand well. You probably pay for travel expenses, like plane tickets and hotels, when employees travel for work. But figuring out when an employee’s time is compensable (must be paid) and when it’s not? That can be tough. As with so many DOL regulations, travel time requirements aren’t exactly straightforward. 

Who Gets Paid for Travel Time

For the most part, travel pay only affects non-exempt workers. Exempt workers should be paid a salary, and don’t earn extra pay for exceeding 40 hours of work per week. If work-related travel adds an extra 10 hours to an exempt employee’s week, it won’t be reflected in the paycheck.

 It’s also worth noting that salespeople whose primary duties involve making sales and who regularly work away from their employer’s place of business are automatically classified as exempt and therefore not paid for travel time.

Commuting to and From Work

The time that employees spend commuting to and from the workplace is generally not considered work time. The DOL does not require employers to pay workers for that time, even if they use employer-provided vehicles. Exemption status doesn’t come into play here. 

Sounds simple enough, but even this fairly simple element of the law can be confusing. The DOL’s “commuting is not work time” provision only applies when the travel happens within the normal commuting area for the business. If your business has multiple locations and an employee who normally commutes 30 miles each way to work is asked to commute 90 miles to a further location, the worker should be paid for the time spent traveling that extra 60 miles but not the 30 miles that are a normal part of the commute. 

Travel During the Work Day

Midday travel that is part of a worker’s duties counts as work time and must be paid. For example, an employee who is asked to go pick up product samples or visit another worksite remains on the clock during those trips.

Short breaks are also considered work time and have to be paid. However, an employer doesn’t have to pay an employee for bona fide meal periods, even when the meal falls in the middle of work-related travel. So a non-exempt employee who drives 45 minutes from his office to another work site would be paid for that 45-minute drive but not for the 30-minute lunch break he takes in the middle.

Travel Outside of Work Hours

From the DOL’s perspective, an employee who is traveling for work generally only needs to be paid for their regular work hours, unless they’re actually doing work during those extra hours. It doesn’t matter if the travel happens on a regular workday or not, as long as it falls during work hours. Actual travel time as a passenger on a plane, train, boat, bus or car is not paid time if it happens outside the employee’s normal work hours. 

Say a non-exempt office employee who works 8a.m. to 5p.m., Monday through Friday, flies to visit a vendor. She takes a midday flight on Tuesday, checks into a hotel, spends the day with the vendor on Wednesday and flies home that night. She should be paid for her time during the Tuesday flight and Wednesday’s meetings, but doesn’t have to be paid for her time during her Wednesday night flight unless she was working during the trip.

If her afternoon flight was on a Sunday, she would still need to be paid for those hours because they fall during her normal working hours, despite not falling during her normal workday. 

Things to Think About

DOL guidelines only dictate minimum pay for work travel. Employers may create their own, more generous policies around paying for travel time outside of working hours, in recognition of the fact that workers might be missing time with family or be otherwise inconvenienced by traveling overnight.

Employers who require workers to travel must also be cognizant of state law. Although it generally mirrors DOL law, some states have slightly different provisions. In Illinois, for example, an employer has to pay travel time whenever an employee is called into work for the employer’s benefit outside of normal hours, like to deal with an emergency. 

Have questions about paying travel time correctly? Contact Commonwealth today! We also invite you to join us for our free webinar Complex Wage and Hour Calculations on August 15 at 12:00 PM EST where we’ll be discussing travel pay and more. 

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