hourglass-small.jpgThis blog post was authored by Megan Lewis

Public agencies are exempt from most, but not all, California’s wage and hour laws. Generally, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) governs public agencies’ wage and hour obligations. But general law cities and special districts are also subject to California’s minimum wage laws for some employee travel time.

Here are some common questions (and answers!) to help you navigate this confusing, and still developing, issue.

• When is travel time compensable for general law city or special district employees?

There is no simple answer that can cover every scenario, but these are some general principles.

General law cities and special districts are not required to pay employees for their commute time in their personal vehicles between home and their regular work locations. If an employee uses a take-home vehicle to commute and is very restricted from using the agency vehicle for personal use, such as not being allowed to run personal errands or transport others during the home-to-work commute, then the travel time may be compensable, depending on how restricted the time is.

Likewise, where an employee travels to a non-regular job site, any additional time it takes the employee to reach the new location in excess of his or her normal commute time is generally compensable.

Where an employee is required to travel out-of-town for work, the employee is entitled to be compensated for travel time to and from his or her destination. This includes time spent driving or as a passenger (in a car, airplane, bus, taxi, etc.), as well as time spent buying a ticket, waiting to board, and the like. However, if the employee took his or her regular meal period or engaged in purely personal pursuits (i.e., stopping at a tourist attraction to sightsee along the way), the agency may deduct that time, although this area of the law is still evolving.

• Does travel time have to be paid at the same rate as other types of work?

Not necessarily. General law cities and special districts can establish a separate rate of pay for travel, as long as the rate does not fall below the state minimum wage requirements, but they must do so before the employee engages in the travel. However, where an employer has agreed to pay a fixed hourly rate of pay for any work performed, which is often the case for public agencies, travel time must be paid at that regular hourly rate, or, if applicable, the required overtime rate.

• If we are paying for travel time, do we still have to reimburse expenses?

Yes! Employers have an independent obligation to reimburse employees for expenses incurred in the course of employer-required travel. The employer’s payment of travel expenses, meal expenses, conference expenses, etc. does not offset or negate the employer’s obligation to pay for the employee’s actual travel time.

Travel time is one of the trickiest areas of wage and hour law for all agencies. If your agency does not have a current policy regarding when employee travel time is compensable, we recommend working with legal counsel to develop a policy that is in compliance with the laws applicable to your specific agency.