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The parking is free, but it has other costs

Careers

Washington - Q: I have a family member who works at a large suburban office building. For more than 30 years, the employer has provided free parking at this location. Because of a recent increase in the number of employees and customers at this building, the company is shifting employee parking to a free off-site garage nearly a mile away. Since the area is not pedestrian-friendly, a shuttle will be provided. The entire process will add 30 minutes of travel time each day.

Is the employer required to pay the employees for the extra 2.5 hours of time being added to their workweek?

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A: Call me Pollyanna, but I see a few causes for celebration here: One, it sounds like the business is growing, and two, the employer is at least trying to offset the hazard and inconvenience with a free shuttle. And even in the suburbs, free parking is nothing to sneer at. Yay ...?

If you prefer your comfort served cold, your relative is in good company: Commute times throughout the United States have been steadily increasing since 2010, to a national average of 26 minutes each way. (Pause here for bitter laughter from "extreme commuters," the fastest-growing group, who travel 90 minutes or more each way to jobs in pricey, traffic-choked metropolitan areas.)

Now the bad news: Standard travel time between home and the workplace is generally not considered compensable work time under the Fair Labour Standards Act. If you choose to live farther from work - or you simply can't afford any square footage bigger than a breadbox in your employer's vicinity - a longer commute is your burden to bear. But even though your relative's increased commute time is due to the employer's business decision, the employer isn't obligated to pay for that added time, any more than if the employer had moved to a new location.

Read also: Porsche wants a 911 to find parking in tech pursuit

The story might be different if employees are required to start working the moment they board the shuttle - say, if the employer equips the bus with WiFi so employees can send emails in transit, says employment attorney Declan Leonard of business law firm Berenzweig Leonard. Also, Leonard points out, some states may have a more expansive view of what commute time qualifies for pay. For example, the California Supreme Court in 2000 ruled that agricultural employees who were required to meet in a specific location and board an employer-provided bus to the work site were entitled to receive pay for the time they spent riding the bus, because they were "subject to the control of the employer" during that ride.

But it doesn't sound as though your relative is being forced to drive to the parking lot and take the shuttle. Presumably, employees are free to use any option - bike, carpool, pogo stick, atomic matter transporter - that gets them to the office door. Or, if pay parking is available closer to work, they may decide a day's parking fee is an acceptable trade-off for their time.

 

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