Last week a human resources (HR) client called with a question about travel time. A non-exempt registered nurse, who works Monday through Friday (8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.), had been approved to drive nearly four hours out of town on a Sunday afternoon to attend a three-day training seminar that began on Monday. The nurse’s manager asked our client: “Are we required to pay this nurse for the time she spends driving to the conference?”

What do you think the answer is?

Out-of-town travel time issues are a frequent occurrence, and determining the correct answer can bring pause to even the most seasoned HR professional.

Generally, travel time from home to and from the employee’s job site at the beginning and end of the workday is not compensable. This is a normal incident of employment. Travel from job site to job site during the workday must be counted as hours worked, whether the employee is driving or is a passenger.

According to Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regulations, travel time, whether driving or as a passenger, away from the employee’s home community during the employee’s workday is work time, except for regular meal periods. Driving or riding as a passenger is considered to be “work.” The employee is simply substituting travel for other duties.

However, travel time for overnight, out-of–town trips can be tricky.

When the travel keeps the employee away from home, the “hours worked” principle also applies to time spent driving during the corresponding hours on non-working days. However, there is a recognized exception to work time: when an employee travels as a passenger by airplane, train, boat, bus or automobile, the time spent traveling on a non-working day would not be considered work time.

In the situation presented, we advised our client that the nurse’s travel time spent driving on Sunday, except for her regular meal period, during the hours corresponding to her regular work hours should be considered work time for which she was entitled to be paid.

We also advised the client to consider another potential cost-saving option in the future. In the situation where public transportation (e.g., an airplane) is available for the trip, but the employee prefers to drive, the company may count as hours worked either the time the employee spends traveling or the time the company would have had to count as hours worked during corresponding hours if the employee had used the public transportation.

If you are not sure whether travel time of non-exempt employees should be counted as hours worked, we recommend you consult with legal counsel to review the facts. You should also review your handbook and personnel policies to make sure the travel provisions are in sync with the FLSA’s requirements.