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N.D.: Electricians’ Travel Time Is Compensable
 

By Diane Cadrain  6/11/2014
 

Electricians who travel a large geographic radius in company trucks full of company equipment should be paid for their travel time, the state’s highest court ruled.

Scott's, an electrical contracting business, operated within a 200-mile radius of its home base in Wahpeton, serving a variety of business, residential and farm clients. With 10 or 12 jobs going at one time, the company kept a fleet of company-owned vehicles on the road. But the company did not compensate the employees for their travel time, so when seven of them complained to the North Dakota Department of Labor, presenting their own travel time records, and seeking compensation for travel time between April 1991 and March 2008, the department investigated, ruled their claim enforceable, and awarded the employees $149,551.03 in unpaid wages, penalties and interest. When Scott’s didn’t pay, the department took the company to state court.

 
A trial court ruled in the employees’ favor.

 

Scott’s appealed that decision, arguing that the employees failed to show any of the evidence needed to recover unpaid wages under state and federal law, and that their own records of time spent traveling were unreliable.

 

On appeal, the state’s highest court reviewed the rules for the compensability of travel time under state law, which, it said, for the most part mirrored the provisions of federal law. The requirement is that employers need only pay employees when the employees are engaged in “principal activities of employment.”  Travel becomes a principal activity of employment when required by the employer, including time spent traveling from jobsite to jobsite, or from office to jobsite. More incidental activities—such as commuting from home to work—are not part of the employee’s principal activity and therefore need not be counted as work time, the court said.

 

Scott’s had argued that the employees’ commutes were "incidental" to the use of the company trucks, and that the trucks were merely a convenience so employees could "carpool" to work sites if they wished to do so. Also, the company argued that employees’ own travel records, which had been recorded the backs of their timecards, and which had been relied on by the department of labor investigators, were unreliable.

 

The court in response cited the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires compensation for any travel deemed integral and indispensable. Activities are integral and indispensable when employees are required to transport equipment deemed essential to the performance of the job.

 

In this case, the court ruled, travel time between the home base and the various jobsites was a compensable principal activity because Scott’s trucks transported tools, equipment and materials essential to employees’ jobs, the employer's work policies imposed strict conditions on the use of the trucks and the employer routinely objected to the employees' attempts to record the full amount of travel time on their timecards.

 

As for the reliance on the employees’ own time records, the court reviewed the department’s investigative methodology and the number of documents reviewed. In response to Scott’s argument about inconsistencies between records, the court stated that with a record as voluminous as the one produced by this case, a few inconsistencies did not render an approximation of hours worked clearly erroneous.

The high court upheld the trial court’s decision.

State of North Dakota v. Scott’s Electric, N.D., No. 20130264 (May 12, 2014).

 

Diane Cadrain is an attorney who has been writing about employment law issues for more than 20 years.

 

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