HR Management & Compliance

Travel Time: New Case Limits Employees’ Right To Be Paid For Travel Time

If you require employees to attend training or other meetings off-site, do you have to pay them for the extra time it takes them to get there? The answer is not always, at least if you’re a public employer. We’ll focus on a new case addressing this issue and then look at common travel time issues affecting both public and private employers.

Training Required

Police officers in the City of Hercules regularly attended training sessions mandated by both California law and police department policy. Most of the training occurred on-site, but two to three times a year officers were trained at off-site locations.

A dispute arose when an officer, David Imada, asked Hercules to compensate him for the time he spent traveling each day to and from a three-day training course in Pittsburg, Calif. The drive to Pittsburg added an hour and a half per day to his regular commute.

Hercules refused, relying on the well-established rule that employers don’t have to pay for an employee’s home-to-work travel time, regardless of whether the employee works at a fixed location or different job sites.

The HR Management & Compliance Report: How To Comply with California Wage & Hour Law, explains everything you need to know to stay in compliance with the state’s complex and ever-changing rules, laws, and regulations in this area. Coverage on bonuses, meal and rest breaks, overtime, alternative workweeks, final paychecks, and more.

No Pay For Travel To Training

Imada and several other officers sued, citing the so-called “special assignment” exception to the federal no-pay-for-commute time rule. The officers said they should be paid because the training was a special assignment for the benefit of the police department which added to their regular commute.

But the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, which covers California, rejected the officers’ claims. It found their extra travel amounted to non-compensable home-to-work time. The training sessions, according to the court, were not special but a normal and ordinary part of the officers’ job. The court noted that the training was required under the employees’ union contract, it was mandated under state certification requirements and it benefited both the officers and Hercules.

When You Do Have To Pay Under Federal Law

Although the court ruled against the Hercules police officers, it explained that there are exceptions to the no-pay-for-commute rule. Compensation for travel time is required in the following cases (see below for different rules for private employers):


  1. One-day special assignment. When, at your request and for your benefit, an employee travels out of town on a special one-day assignment, you generally must pay for the travel time even if it is outside normal work hours. But you don’t have to compensate an employee for time spent traveling from home to reach a common carrier, such as to catch a plane or train.


  2. Overnight travel. If an employee’s job requires overnight travel, you have to pay for travel time (not including meal time) that occurs during normal working hours on a regular working day. Pay is also required if the travel takes place during those same hours on what would normally be a non-working day. However, you don’t have to pay for travel time of public employees outside normal work hours, such as on an overnight trip, unless the person actually performs work while traveling.

Stricter Rules For Private Employers

Unlike public employers, employers in the private sector have to follow California law, which in most cases is more favorable to employees than the federal rules. Thomas Grogan of the California Labor Commissioner’s Office told CEA that California would likely consider travel time such as that in the Imada case to be “hours worked” if the employer was in the private sector. So, the employees would have to be paid for travel time in excess of their regular commute time.

Plus, for overnight trips, unlike federal law, California generally considers travel time outside of normal working hours to be compensable, even if the employee performs no work while traveling.

Handling Other Travel Time Issues

Keep in mind that only hourly workers are affected by the travel time rules; employees exempt from the overtime laws must be paid a fixed salary regardless of how many hours they put in. And unless there is a union or other agreement to the contrary, compensation is not required during meal periods or recreation, including time for relaxation and sleeping.

When travel time compensation is required, here are some points to be aware of:


  1. You can pay a lower rate for travel. Under both state and federal law, you can pay as little as minimum wage for travel time unless you have union contracts or other agreements to the contrary. But you must inform your employees of your travel pay policy in advance.


  2. Look out for problems when using different rates. You have to keep track of what counts as travel time and what is considered regular work time. For example, time spent by private employees going from work to the airport, waiting for a flight, traveling to a new location and driving from the airport to a hotel or new work site are all considered travel time. But if the employee actually does some work in the airport or on the plane, you must pay for that time at the employee’s regular rate.


  3. Watch overtime calculations. Overtime is required when travel time and work time together exceed 40 hours in a week. If you use two pay rates, overtime is calculated using a “weighted average” method. First, add up the employee’s work time and travel time earnings during the week. Then divide the total by the number of hours put in to get the employee’s average hourly wage. Multiply that average by 1.5 to determine the employee’s hourly overtime rate.