HR Management & Compliance

Ask the Expert: What Are the Rules for Work Travel?

I have a company that does lighting designs for events that require employees to travel from their homes to various locations. Sometimes travel is required out of state. Typically the travel time is one to two hours. Sometimes employees meet at the warehouse and ride in the company van. Do we pay for the time they spend traveling to and from the work site as well as the when they are doing their work on the site? Does it matter if it’s overnight?

Compensation of travel time is covered by the federal Portal to Portal Act, which has specific rules for the different types of work travel. The rules for compensating employees who travel as part of their work day are different for overnight travel, travel in emergency situations, and travel for special assignments. Therefore, depending on whether employees are asked to travel locally, out of town/far outside the normal commuting area for the business, overnight, or in otherwise unusual situations, then the general compensation rules will differ.

Local, Workday Travel
Let’s start with the standard situation where the employees travel from their homes to local worksites during the daytime/normal work hours. An employee who travels from home before the regular workday and returns home at the end of the workday is engaged in ordinary home to work travel, which is a normal incident of employment. This is true whether he/she works at a fixed location or at different job sites. Normal travel from home to work is not work time.

In these cases, the employees’ “on the clock” time begins when they reach the first work site and conduct the first “principal activity” of their work. On the days when the employees meet at the warehouse, then travel together in the company van, compensated time would begin when the employees arrive at the warehouse. On days when the employees travel individually to a local work site, then compensated time would begin when the employees reach that work site. This is true even if some work sites are further from home than others (as long as these work sites are within the usual scope of business for the company).
Any travel between work sites throughout the day would be compensated and the employees would go “off the clock” when they left the last job site of the day and returned home.

Note, though, that if the employee is engaged in work while enroute to the work site, then this time becomes compensable. So if the employee stops on the way to the work site to buy and load supplies, then work time begins at the first stop. (Conversely, if the employee stops to run a personal errand, work has not yet begun.)

One Day, Non-Local Assignments
Now let’s consider a situation where the employee is still given a one-day assignment, but the travel is outside the local area for the business. In these cases, most of the time spent traveling is work time and must be compensated.

For example, an employee typically works in Washington, D.C. from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., but is given a special one-day assignment in New York City. The employee is instructed to leave Washington by train at 8 a.m. and she arrives in New York, ready for work, at noon. The special assignment is completed at 3 p.m. and the employee arrives back in Washington by train at 7 p.m.

This travel to and from New York is not regarded as ordinary home-to-work travel and must be compensated (starting and ending with the employee’s arrival at the train station). It was performed for the employer’s benefit and at its special request to meet the needs of a particular assignment. Therefore, it would qualify as an integral part of the principal activity that the employee was hired to perform.

As noted, the “local commute” from the employee’s home to the train station need not be compensated. If not for the special assignment, the employee would have had to report to her regular local worksite. So in this case, the “worksite” and place of the first principal activity would be the train station.

Overnight Travel
Travel that keeps an employee away from home overnight is designated as “travel away from home.” (29 CFR 785.39). Travel away from home is treated differently and is paid work time when it “cuts across the employee’s workday.” The employee is deemed to be simply substituting travel for other duties.

The compensated time includes not only hours worked on regular workdays during normal work hours, but also time worked during the corresponding hours on nonwork days (weekends, perhaps). However, the Wage and Hour Division does not consider time spent traveling overnight away from home outside of regular working hours as a passenger on a plane, train, boat, or bus to be paid work time.

So, if an employee who normally works 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Monday through Friday is a passenger on a plane departing for a week in San Francisco at 9 a.m. on a Saturday, this time spent traveling is work time because it cuts across his normal working hours. It does not matter that Saturday is not a normal workday. If the plane departed at 6 p.m. instead, this travel time would not be counted as paid work time because the employee would be traveling outside of normal working hours. (If the employee performs work while on the plane, though, then the time becomes work time).

As you can see, the regulations are quite specific and can be somewhat tricky when various types of travel are involved. However, note that the FLSA and Portal to Portal Act cover what you must pay as a minimum; you are free to develop your own more generous, equitable, and easily administered methods of compensating employees for unusually long commute or travel times if desired.