Should “commute time” in company vehicle be paid?

JOSELUIS Alcantar works for Hobart Service as a service technician travelling to Hobart’s customers to perform after-sale maintenance and repair services on equipment sold by Hobart’s parent company. Service technicians regularly drive to and from customer locations in company vehicles, carrying the tools and repair parts. Each technician is assigned to one of Hobart’s thirteen California branch offices.

The technicians are paid for each hour they spend fixing equipment and the time they spend driving to and from different assignments. If they commute in the service vehicles, they are also paid for the time spent driving from their homes to their first assignments and from their last assignments back home, but only if such a drive falls outside their “normal commute.” A normal commute is the time it takes a technician to drive from home to the branch location. If a job site is farther from a technician’s home than the branch office, the technician is paid for the extra time it takes to reach the job site. But if a job site is the same distance or closer to a technician’s home than the branch office, the technician is not paid for that drive time.

As a condition of employment, technicians signed an agreement on the use of the vehicles. The technicians supposedly have the option to commute using the service vehicles and leave the service vehicles at their branch offices after work. However, Alcantar alleges this choice is illusory. The branch offices do not have enough secured parking spaces for the service vehicles, placing technicians at risk for paying for any stolen tools and parts if the vehicles are burglarized at the branch offices.

Technicians are prohibited from using the company vehicles for personal purposes or for carrying passengers without prior approval. Technicians are prohibited from transporting or storing alcohol in the vehicles. Violating the terms of the vehicle use could result in the driver being disciplined or fired. Technicians were also required to respond to calls on their company-issued cell phones while driving to and from their first and last assignments of the day.

Alcantar sued Hobart in a class action alleging that Hobart owed its technicians back wages because the restrictions and requirements imposed by the employer during the “normal commute” time served to place the technicians under Hobart’s control. Therefore, such time should be paid.

Ordinarily, the law does not require that employees be paid for commute time from their home to their worksite. However, California law requires that employees be paid for all time during which an employee is subject to the control of the employer. If, during the commute time, the employee is really “subject to the control of the employer” then the employee must be paid for this commute time.

Here, the employer asked the trial court to dismiss the case arguing that the employees had a choice whether to drive the service vehicles or not. The matter reached the appellate court, which questioned whether the technicians’ decision to drive the service vehicles during the home commute was truly voluntary, given that the employer did not provide enough secured parking spaces and the technicians could become financially responsible for tools and service parts stolen from their vehicles, forcing them to take the service vehicles home.

If technicians were forced to drive the service vehicles during their home commute, and if they are further required to perform work during their commute such as answering their company phones, then the technicians’ time doing these are “hours worked” and should be paid.

Rather than continue to litigate the case, the employer opted to settle the technicians’ claims for $4.2 million.

Employees such as couriers, medical, appliance, and cable technicians, and other service representatives may travel from their homes to employer-assigned locations, using company-owned vehicles. If their commute times are subject to employer control, they may be entitled to additional wages.

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The Law Offices of C. Joe Sayas, Jr. welcomes inquiries about this topic. All inquiries are confidential and at no-cost. You can contact the office at (818) 291-0088 or visit www.joesayaslaw.com or our Facebook page Joe Sayas Law. [C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. is an experienced trial attorney who has successfully recovered wages and other monetary damages for thousands of employees and consumers. He was named Top Labor & Employment Attorney in California by the Daily Journal, consistently selected as Super Lawyer by the Los Angeles Magazine, and is the recipient of PABA’s Community Champion Award for 2016.]

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