California HR

5 Basic Rules for Understanding Travel Pay in California

Experts say travel pay disputes – from business trips and mandatory off-site training to commuting time, waiting time, and on-call time – could fuel an enormous surge in lawsuits filed by workers in 2012 and beyond. Why? Many employers haven’t updated their workplace policies in recent years to keep up with changing federal and state guidelines. Rising gas prices (and falling paychecks) have forced more employees to focus on their out-of-pocket expenses, and disagreements over travel pay typically fall within the wage/hour realm – making them a highly attractive target for plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Even for experienced supervisors and HR managers, travel pay standards can prove very confusing. The rules change quickly, based on whether workers are commuting or traveling on assignment, whether they’re driving their own cars or company vehicles, and whether they’re exempt or non-exempt. Plus, some states have their own rules for travel pay and expenses that don’t always match the federal guidelines.

In a CER webinar titled “Travel Pay in California: What You’re Required to Pay for When Employees Are on the Move,” Kristine Kwong outlined when travel time is compensable in California and gave us 5 basic rules for understanding when travel pay is required.

Understanding Travel Pay in California: When is Travel Time Compensable?

When, exactly, is travel time compensable? To answer this, you must understand that the key issue in many instances is “whether or not the employee is actually engaging in travel as part of their employer’s principal activity or, are they doing it for the convenience of the employer? If they are traveling as part of their principle activity, then, in many cases, it is considered work time.” According to Kwong.

When it comes to understanding when travel pay must be given in California, it’s important to know the differences between the federal and state laws. Remember: when both federal and state laws exist on a specific topic, the law which is more favorable to the employee will govern.

At the federal level, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is the primary law governing travel pay. The standard asks whether the employee’s time is spent primarily for the benefit of the employer. It also includes time spent, even if not doing work, but under the control of the employer, such as on-site, on-call time. In California’s labor code, the standard comes down to whether the employee is subject to the control of the employer, and the concept of “control” is narrower than federal standard. While the federal and state laws overlap, California’s labor code is generally more liberal and more protective of employees.

5 Basic Rules of Travel Pay

Here are 5 basic rules to understanding travel pay:

  1. “Commuting time from an employee’s regular place of work each day is not work time, so employers do not have to pay employees for this time.” Kwong explained.
  2. “If an employee spend time traveling to a location for a special assignment, or spends substantial travel time for an emergency outside your normal work hours, that time that’s spent traveling during regular work hours is considered part of their principal job duties.” Travel in these circumstances or outside of normal work hours is compensable work time.
  3. If an employee reports to a central location to pick up equipment before proceeding to his or her assigned worksite, the time spent traveling to the central location is not work time. The time spent traveling to the assigned worksite is work time.
  4. Overnight travel or travel away from home is always work time under California law. Under federal law, it is work time only when it cuts across the employee’s normal workday and/or requires the employee to work on weekends or days when he or she would not otherwise be required to work.
  5. Regular meal periods and time spent sleeping or in other leisure activities while traveling is not work time, and the employer does not have to pay the employee for this time.

To register for a future webinar, visit CER webinars.

Kristine E. Kwong, Esq. is a partner in the Los Angeles office of law firm Musick, Peeler & Garrett, LLP. ( Her practice includes the drafting and updating of handbooks, policy manuals, codes of conduct, and severance packages, and she regularly produces and presents training programs for employers on current issues of employment law.