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Compensation for Travel Time Regulations

Posted by Eric Kingsley | Apr 11, 2024 | 0 Comments

Imagine this: you're on your way to a work conference, stuck in traffic, and wondering if you'll ever get paid for this time spent on the road. Sound familiar? Our clients have been there too, and we know how confusing it can be to navigate the world of travel time compensation.

Travel reimbursement on computer

But here's the thing - you might be entitled to more pay than you think. Today, we're going to break down the nitty-gritty of compensation for travel time regulations. No legal jargon, no boring lectures. Just straight talk about when your travel time counts as work time and how to make sure you're getting paid what you deserve.

Table of Contents:

Understanding Compensable Work Time for Travel

When it comes to work travel, things can get a little tricky. You might be wondering, "Do I get paid for this time on the road or what?" The answer is: it depends. The U.S. Department of Labor has some pretty specific regulations about what counts as compensable work time, especially when it comes to travel. 

Let's break it down and explore the nuances of what constitutes paid time when you're traveling for work. Trust me, you'll want to know this stuff. First things first, let's talk about your daily commute. You know, that time you spend every morning and evening getting to and from your regular work location. Here's the deal: that typical commute time? 

It's not considered compensable work time. Nope, sorry. Your employer doesn't have to pay you for those hours spent in traffic or on the train. Why? Because according to the DOL, normal commuting from home to work and back again at the end of the day is not considered part of your principal work activity. 

It's just the time you spend getting yourself to your job, not actually doing your job.

When Does Travel Time Become Work Time?

Okay, so your regular commute isn't paid time. But what about when you're traveling during the workday? Like, say your boss sends you across town to a different office for a meeting. In that case, the travel time is compensable. Once you've arrived at your workplace for the day, any travel you do as part of your work duties counts as work time. 

So if you usually work 9-5 but spend an hour driving to and from a work event during those hours, congrats - that's an hour of work time, baby. Your employer has to pay you for it. The key here is that the travel is happening within your normal work hours. If your boss had you drive to that meeting at 8pm instead, outside your regular schedule, that would be a different story (which we'll get into later).

Paid Travel Time Under Special Circumstances

Alright, we've covered the basics of day-to-day work travel. But what about those times when work takes you out of town or outside your normal schedule? Buckle up, because there are some special circumstances where your travel time might actually count as paid work hours. Let's dive in.

Emergency Work Calls and Compensation

Picture this: it's 11pm on a Saturday and you're just about to drift off to sleep when your phone rings. It's your boss. There's an urgent situation at work and they need you to come in ASAP. First of all, ugh. Second of all, do you get paid for this rude awakening? Yes. 

If your employer pulls you in for an emergency work situation outside your regular hours, that time is compensable. The same goes for if they call you in and have you handle the emergency over the phone. You're still doing work for your employer's benefit, so you get paid for that time.

Overnight Travel – What Counts as Work Time?

Now, let's say your work duties require an overnight trip out of town. It's not just a quick meeting across the city - you've got to travel to a distant location and stay the night. What parts of that travel time are compensable? 

According to the DOL, any time spent traveling during what would be your normal work hours is compensable, even if it's on a weekend or a day you don't usually work. So if you normally work 9-5 Monday through Friday, and you spend 9-5 on a Saturday traveling for work, those are paid hours. Even though it's the weekend. But the time spent traveling outside your regular work schedule, like in the evenings after work hours? That time doesn't count as compensable work time. 

There are a couple exceptions, though. If you're doing actual work while traveling (like answering emails or taking calls), or if the travel is an extension of your work activity (like a pilot flying a plane), then all that time is compensable.

The Role of Commuting in Work Hours Calculation

Man commuting to work

We've established that your normal, everyday commute from home to your regular workplace isn't paid work time. But there are some scenarios where commuting gets a little more complicated.

Regular Commute vs. Compensable Travel

Let's say you usually drive 30 minutes to get to your office. But today, your boss is sending you to a worksite in the next town over, an hour away. Is that extra commute time compensable? The rule here is that travel time is compensable when it falls outside your normal commuting area. 

So in this case, the first 30 minutes of your drive (your regular commute time) is unpaid, but the additional 30 minutes outside your normal commuting area counts as paid work time. It gets trickier if you take public transportation. Let's say you usually take a 20 minute bus ride to the office. If your employer has you take the bus to a different work location instead, that whole bus ride is unpaid - even if it's longer than your normal commute. Why? Because time spent traveling between your home and the bus or train terminal doesn't count as hours worked, as long as it's within your normal commuting area. 

So in a nutshell: extra time spent driving outside your normal commuting area is compensable, but extra time spent on public transit usually isn't. Gotta love those technicalities.

Exemptions and Special Considerations for Exempt Employees

Okay, pop quiz: what's the difference between an exempt and nonexempt employee? If you said "I have no idea," you're not alone. But it's an important distinction when it comes to travel time compensation.

Understanding Exempt Status and Travel Time

In labor law, exempt employees are those who aren't entitled to overtime pay. They're usually salaried professionals, executives, or administrators who make above a certain pay threshold and meet specific job duties criteria. Nonexempt employees, on the other hand, are entitled to overtime pay for any hours worked over 40 in a week. They're usually hourly workers. 

So what does this have to do with travel time? Well, the rules for compensating travel time are a bit different for exempt vs. nonexempt employees. For nonexempt employees, any travel time that counts as work time (like we discussed earlier) must be paid at their regular hourly rate. And if that travel time puts them over 40 hours for the week, they're entitled to overtime pay. But for exempt employees, it's not so cut and dry. 

Since they're not entitled to overtime pay, their employer can require them to travel outside normal work hours without additional compensation. That said, some employers choose to provide extra pay or comp time for exempt employees who travel extensively. But it's not legally required like it is for nonexempt folks.

Legal Framework Governing Employee Travel Time

Alright, it's time to get into the nitty gritty legal stuff. I know, I know - labor law isn't exactly a thrill ride. But if you want to make sure you're getting paid fairly for your work travel, it's important to understand the legal framework behind it.

Key Regulations from the Department of Labor

The U.S. Department of Labor has a whole host of regulations that govern when an employer has to compensate employees for travel time. These regulations come from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which is the federal law that sets standards for wages and overtime pay. One of the key things the FLSA regulations cover is what counts as "hours worked" when it comes to travel time. 

The general rule is that time spent traveling for work during normal work hours is compensable, while regular commuting time and travel outside work hours usually isn't. But as we've seen, there are a bunch of exceptions and caveats to that general rule. The DOL has fact sheets and online resources that dive into all the specific scenarios and how they should be handled. 

It's worth noting that some states have their own labor laws that provide greater protections for employees than the federal FLSA. So depending on where you work, you might have additional rights when it comes to travel time compensation.

Addressing Common Queries About Work Travel Compensation

FAQs about travel compensation

Even with all the legal info out there, figuring out travel time pay can be confusing. Trust me, you're not the only one with questions. Let's tackle some of the most common ones I hear.

Differentiating Between Work and Commute Time

One of the biggest points of confusion is distinguishing between travel that counts as work time and travel that's considered normal commuting. And it's an important distinction, since work time is paid and commute time usually isn't. The key thing to remember is that travel during the workday, after you've already arrived at your first work location, is generally compensable. So if you report to the office in the morning and then your boss sends you across town for a meeting, that travel time is paid. 

But let's say you have a one-day assignment in another city. Your travel from home to the other city is considered commute time and isn't paid. But once you arrive and start traveling between work sites in that city, that travel time is compensable. I know, it can get a little "in the weeds." But the main thing to remember is: travel between work sites during the day = paid, travel from home to work (even if it's not your usual work location) = unpaid commute time.

The Impact of Remote Work on Commuting and Compensation

With more and more folks working remotely these days, the concept of "commute time" is changing. And that has some interesting implications for travel time compensation.

Redefining Normal Work Hours in a Remote Setting

In a traditional office setting, it's usually pretty clear what counts as "normal work hours." But with remote work, those lines can get blurry. Is your "workplace" your home office? Or your company's headquarters that you visit once a month? If you travel from your home office to HQ for a meeting, is that commute time or work travel? 

The answer (surprise, surprise) is that it depends. If you're required to report to HQ periodically as part of your job, then traveling there could be considered a normal commute. But if it's an occasional trip outside your normal remote work routine, it might count as compensable work travel. Some companies are getting ahead of this issue by setting clear policies for remote workers and travel time compensation. 

They might define the employee's "primary work location" as their home office, and any required travel outside that as compensable work time. Other companies are taking a more flexible approach, evaluating travel compensation on a case-by-case basis depending on the specific circumstances. The key is to have open communication between employer and employee about expectations and compensation for any work-related travel. 

Remote work is still a relatively new frontier, and companies are figuring it out as they go.

Key Takeaway: 

Understanding when travel time is paid work time can be confusing, but here's the scoop: Your daily commute? Not paid. Traveling for work duties during your normal hours? Paid. Special cases like overnight trips or emergencies may also count as paid work time. Know these rules to make sure you're compensated fairly.


So there you have it - the ins and outs of compensation for travel time regulations. It's not always a straightforward path, but understanding your rights is the first step to making sure you're not leaving money on the table.

Remember, your regular commute? Not paid time. But if your boss sends you on a special assignment or you're burning the midnight oil on an overnight trip, that's a different story. Don't be afraid to speak up and ask questions if something doesn't seem right.

At the end of the day, you work hard for your paycheck. Making sense of compensation for travel time regulations is just one more way to ensure you're getting every penny you've earned.

About the Author

Eric Kingsley

Eric B. Kingsley is a 2023 "Best In Law" Award winner and has litigated over 150 class actions. He is also an AV peer rated attorney and a prolific speaker at various seminars on employment law.


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