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Employers often wonder when they should be paying hourly employees for their travel time and the answer may not always be straightforward. Broadly speaking, federal wage and hour laws require that employers compensate employees for the hours they spend traveling for work-related activities. But the law makes several distinctions that every business should consider when calculating wages and overtime for non-exempt hourly employees. A few scenarios might help to illustrate employers’ obligations.

For example, on a typical workday an hourly employee leaves her house in Miami Beach, stops at Starbucks, and then sits in traffic for at least an hour before she finally arrives at her employer’s office in Fort Lauderdale. On these days, the employee’s commute time each morning is not compensable work time. Commuting time is personal time. Where the employee chooses to live will generally not cause the employer to be obligated to pay for travel time, regardless of how much traffic an employee may suffer through.

But imagine that the employee needs to attend a meeting in Boca Raton 50 miles north of the beach. What happens now? In this situation, employers will likely have to pay the employee for her travel time, regardless of whether it takes her one hour, or if she is stuck in South Florida’s famous I-95 traffic and it takes her three hours to reach Boca. That said, employers can deduct the amount of time that it normally takes her to get to work. So, if she leaves her house on Miami Beach at 7 a.m., passes Fort Lauderdale at 7:45 a.m. without stopping at the office, and then arrives at the meeting in Boca Raton at 8:30 a.m., the employer would only have to pay for her travel from 7:45 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.

The same principle applies if the employee has a work assignment in Aventura. However, the end result is different. Aventura is a different city than the employee’s regular work place in Fort Lauderdale, so it might sound like it would be compensable time. But because the employer can deduct the time the employee would have traveled to her usual workplace in Fort Lauderdale, the employer may not end up owing the employee any wages for travel time since Aventura is closer to her home than Fort Lauderdale.

So what about travel that keeps the same non-exempt employee away from her home overnight? This travel time that spans more than one workday changes the equation. When an employee travels to another city for at least one night, employers need only compensate travel time which occurs during normal working hours. So, if the same hourly worker normally works from 9am to 5pm and is traveling to an overnight work convention in Orlando, traveling from 4pm to 7pm on a Tuesday, the employee must be paid for the one hour she spent traveling during her normal working hours. Additional considerations employers should be aware of that may change an employee’s compensable travel time are whether the employee is working while she is a passenger during travel, whether the employee is traveling during normal work hours on non-working days (i.e. weekends), or whether she is a passenger on public transportation or driving her own car to the out of town work assignment.  (It gets more complicated if the employee is traveling across time zones or internationally.)

For a last scenario, what if the employee is provided a company car so she can travel from her home in Miami Beach to the employer’s second office on Marco Island three hours away? This scenario is the grey area employers dread. That is because that three hour journey could be compensable work time depending on the company’s scheduling and the geography of the various offices. The use of a company vehicle for travel is not calculated as a work time if the employee’s travel “is within the normal commuting area for the employer’s business or establishment.” In most situations, if several employees are routinely driving to the Marco Island office as part of their commutes, then it would not be considered compensable work time. But in other circumstances, the inquiry for employers becomes more fact-specific as the journey becomes less routine and the distance to the destination goes beyond the company’s normal service area. In practice, employers should also consider the added liability risk in providing company vehicles for long commutes across notorious roads like Alligator Alley.

There are several different factors and scenarios to contemplate when calculating hourly travel time for wages and overtime pay. For the many unique travel needs that your business faces, it is recommended that you seek attorney help to ensure compliance with the law.

*Special thanks to Thomas Raine, who assisted in the drafting of this post. Thomas is a third year Juris Doctor Candidate at the University of Miami School of Law.