Time spent commuting is generally not considered “on the clock” if not specifically part of an agreement between an employer and employee. Employers need not pay employees for the time spent getting to work, whether it is by car, foot, or public transportation. Nor would an employer be expected to compensate an employee for the time spent getting ready for work. This is well-established under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1937 and the Portal-to-Portal Act of 1947.
However, there are exceptions to the general rule. For example, when an employee is required to wear safety gear to work, and it takes an exceptionally long time to get ready every day, an hourly employee must be paid for the time spent preparing for work.
There is an exception for time spent commuting when an hourly employee performs preliminary and postliminary activities that are an “integral and indispensable” part of an employee’s “principal activity.” Of course, it is not easy to distinguish between less significant activities and those that are “integral and indispensable.” When an employee spends twenty to thirty minutes each day before work checking e-mail, scheduling tasks, and otherwise preparing for work, then not only does the time spent working become compensable, but also the time spent commuting after the day’s work has begun.
However, simple tasks that an employee must perform, especially if the tasks are infrequent or do not need to be done at a specific time, probably fall into the category of less significant tasks. This may include dropping a letter in a mailbox on the way home or sending a summary of work performed to an employer at some point between shifts. Employees are not entitled to wages for time spent commuting before or after these minor tasks are performed.
An employer would be wise to set policies with this in mind. If possible, tasks should be performed within the regular workday to avoid creating a liability for time spent commuting. Where it is important that hourly employees perform certain activities at home, before going to work or after returning at the end of the day, the employee should be paid for the time spent working at home, in addition to the time spent commuting.
Photo credit: LancerE under Creative Commons license.