Dispatching Technicians From Home – When Does the Clock Start?

In what hopefully is a decision that becomes a trend, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that state law does not require employers to pay employees for routine commute time driving company-provided vehicles between the employees’ homes and assigned jobsites. In the majority of states the rule is the employee’s normal commute time from home to a place of work is deducted from the time taken from home to the first job site to determine when compensation begins. This rule is also applicable to the return from the employee’s last jobsite to home.

The rule has been difficult to interpret due to changes in work practices. Many employees work remotely and seldom if ever come to the place of business. Technicians can be located far from the business, hired to service and support remote locations. These individuals dispatched from their home do not have a commute time. The Wisconsin Supreme Court took a practical and reasonable approach to the issue and their logic should be influential elsewhere.

In 1996 Congress enacted the Employee Commuting Flexibility Act establishing that normal commute time, even when driving an employer provided vehicle is not compensable under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. The regulations provide that, “wages accrue when employees are engaged in physical or mental exertion controlled or required by the employer and pursued necessarily and primarily for the benefit of the employer’s business.” Moreover, “these exertions must take place within a workday which comprises the time which the employee commences their principal activity and those activities which are indispensable to its performance.”

The claimant in this dispute contended that his driving the company owned vehicle containing the parts, supplies, and tools required to perform his job were indispensable to the performance of his duties. Although the issue was when the workday began, The Court did not find the driving involved physical or mental exertion primarily done for the benefit of the employer. If it did then every commute to work would be for the benefit of the employer, at the direction of the employer, and indispensable to the performance of the job. After all everyone thinks about their job on the way to work whether it is what tasks need to be accomplished or how one relates to their supervisor. The Court was clear to point out that it did not matter if the employee was in their own vehicle or a company owned vehicle for in both instances the employee was commuting.

The mere fact that the employee was transporting parts, supplies and tools to the job site necessary to perform his principal job activities was insufficient to convert a commute into compensable work time. The Court did draw a distinction where an employee met another employee or  a supplier to obtain a necessary part for the performance of his principal activities. In that instance it was concluded that the time from his home to the meeting site was not compensable, however once he met the other employee to obtain an indispensable part he was on the clock.

Determining when an employee is eligible for compensation and overtime compensation are a significant issue for every business. Failure to properly compensate individuals can result in governmental and private claims. A claim by one individual can quickly become a claim for all individuals similarly situated. Past wages, interest, fines and penalties can quickly add up and jeopardize a business.  Even with specific policies regarding authorization of overtime compensation, if the employer takes the benefit of the work it is obligated to compensate the individual for it. In this instance the Wisconsin Supreme Court failed to approve commuting time recognizing that every individual commutes and the workday does not begin when you leave your home.