One of the more complicated issues for payroll managers is determining when they must pay a non-exempt employee for their travel time. The rules for single day trips have always been fairly simple; most travel time (except ordinary home-to-work travel) is usually compensable, except for travel from an employee’s home to the airport, in which case, the clock starts when the employee arrives at the airport and stops when the employee returns to the airport in their home city. If the employee’s flight is delayed, the time is compensable.

The overnight travel regulations are more complicated. Unless the employee is required to drive — in which case, the time spent driving is compensable — travel time is only compensable if it takes place during the employee’s normal working hours, regardless of the day of travel. This means that if an employee normally works from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and takes a plane trip, rides as passenger in a car, or simply chooses to drive to an out-of-town location, they will only be compensated for travel that takes place between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Therefore, if an employee is traveling on a Sunday in order to attend a Monday morning meeting and the employee arrives at the airport in their home city at 4 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon and reaches his hotel at his destination at 7 p.m., he will only be compensated for the time between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m.

One question that employers often asked was how to determine normal work hours when the employee’s work hours varied from day to day? In a recent opinion letter, the Department of Labor finally offered some guidance on how to handle this issue. The opinion letter offers three alternatives for establishing the typical work day. The first permissible method is to review an employee’s time records during the most recent month and determine whether those records reveal “typical work hours.” If they do, the employer may consider those the normal working hours going forward, unless there is a material change. A second alternative is to calculate the average start and end times for the employee’s workdays, and use those as the normal working hours. Finally, if the first two methods are not feasible, the employer and the employee (or the employee’s representative) may negotiate and agree to the “normal” working hours for purposes of determining whether travel time is compensable. Pretty simple, right? Okay, maybe not. This is another reason to be kind to anyone who works in your payroll department.