5 Basic Rules for Calculating Employee Pay for Travel Time

The rules on what kinds of travel time are (and are not) compensable for non-exempt employees are complex.  As opposed to exempt employees—who generally receive a salary intended to compensate them for all working time, including time spent in business-related travel—non-exempt employees are often only paid for the particular hours that the law deems compensable.  Failure to pay a non-exempt employee for compensable travel time can lead to both straight-time and overtime pay claims.

Here are 5 Basic Rules for Calculating Correct Employee Pay for Travel Time

Rule 1: The time employees spend commuting to and from their regular place of work each day is NOT work time, so employers do not have to pay employees for this time. What’s important about this, is that it doesn’t matter if the site of the first place of employment changes from day to day, and the distance doesn’t matter either, except in very, very special circumstances.

Rule 2: Work time DOES include time spent traveling to another location for a special assignment, substantial travel for an emergency outside the normal working hours, and time spent traveling during regular work hours as part of the employee’s principal job duties.

Rule 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. In this case, this travel to the central location falls under rule 1 – commute time to the first place of employment for that day. However, in this type of situation, then the time spent traveling from the central location to the assigned worksite IS work time.

Rule 4: Overnight travel or travel away from home IS work time (thus requiring employers to pay for travel time) 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.

For example, if the employee’s hours are 9am to 5pm, and they are a non-exempt employee, and you have them take a 2pm flight, then the travel time from their home to the airport, all the time waiting at the airport (delays, weather, what-have-you), the flight time, and the travel time to the hotel (or wherever they’re going) all becomes compensable time. [If it’s the] same scenario, [but] you make the employee take a 7pm flight (2 hours after the end of their normal shift, 9-5), then none of that time that I just explained is compensable time. That said, remember that state laws may differ from federal law and your state may have stricter employer obligations.

If an employee normally works Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and the employee is traveling on Saturday, the employer would be required to count as hours worked the time spent traveling by the employee between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. on that Saturday. If the employee’s travel spans that entire normal workday time period, the employer would be required to include all that time, minus time usually given for lunch or breaks, as hours worked. As noted, if the employee actually performs work on a non-workday while he or she is traveling, the employer would need to count that time as hours worked regardless of what time the work is performed.

Rule 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.

The federal rules regarding travel time are confusing, and the outcome depends on when the travel occurs, the purpose of the travel, and whether employees perform any work-related activities while in transit. Even the most experienced HR professionals can be tripped up by the rules, so it’s advisable to consult with an experienced employment law attorney to ensure your travel time policy is compliant with federal and state law.