CA Court Addresses Compensability of Commute Time for Service Technicians Carrying Employer Tools and Supplies
Topics: Court Decisions
This week, a California court issued its opinion in Oliver v. Konica Minolta Business Solutions USA, Inc., holding that service technicians using their personal vehicles to carry supplies and tools to and from customer locations “may” be entitled to mileage reimbursement and compensation for time spent driving from their home to their first customer site in the morning, and home from their last customer site in the afternoon. To be clear, the case does not involve the issue of hours worked or mileage reimbursement for travel from the first customer site to the last customer site within the work day. The employer paid for all such time and reimbursed its technicians for that mileage expense. The issue is more narrow – is the employer required to ALSO pay for the time and expense of the employee commuting to and from home to the first and from the last customer site each day. Normally, of course, an employee’s regular commute time is not considered hours worked, nor is an employee entitled to mileage expense reimbursement associated with a normal commute to and from work. In this case, however, the plaintiffs argued that the commute time was, in fact, hours worked because the employees had to carry the employer’s supplies and tools in their personal vehicles to use at their appointments throughout the day and this amounted to a sufficient level of “control” over their commute time to transform that time into hours worked. By extension, the employees argued that the mileage expense associated with this commute time also had to be reimbursed. The trial court rejected the employees’ position and granted summary judgment for the employer. The employees appealed.
The Court of Appeal reversed, holding that the commute time may or may not be compensable (and subject to mileage reimbursement) depending on facts that were in dispute. The employer presented facts showing that employees had the option of leaving their tools and supplies at specified field locations and that they were not required to take them home each night. The court held that if carrying the tools and equipment in the employees’ personal vehicle truly was optional, then the time and expense of commuting to and from home is not compensable or reimbursable. The court also held that even if employees were required to carry the tools and equipment with them, the time and expense associated with the commute still would not be compensable if the carrying of the equipment in the car did not effectively prevent employees from using the commute time for personal pursuits (e.g. taking kids to school on the way, stopping at the store on the way home, etc.) if they chose to do so. On this point, however, the court noted that the employees presented evidence of wide variation in the size of their cars, how much equipment and tools they carried, and how much space this took up in their cars. Some employees claimed that the equipment occupied all of the passenger and cargo space in the car except the driver’s seat (effectively preventing them from using their car for most personal pursuits). Some said they could not even see out their rearview window. Others admitted the equipment took up only a small amount of space. Because of the varying circumstances in the record, the court held that the issue of “control” could not be decided on summary judgment and required resolution of factual disputes. (It also likely precludes class treatment due to the individualized issues bearing on liability).
Although the court did not issue a particularly bright-line ruling on the issue of compensability of commute time for service technicians, the ruling does provide some guidance that employers with similarly situated employees should consider in assessing whether they have to pay for commute time to/from home for employees who travel to customer sites. The answer depends on the level of control placed on the employees’ ability to use their commute time for personal pursuits. If they are so restricted that they cannot use the time for personal pursuits (e.g employer tools take up all free space in car and/or employee is precluded by company policy from having non-employee passengers), then the time is likely is compensable. If they are not so restricted and can make pitstops on the way to or from their first and last customer site, including picking up a family member or friend and/or shopping (examples), then the time likely is not compensable.