Rejecting a plumbing foreman’s claim that he was entitled to compensation for his time spent commuting to and from work, which was alleged to be two hours each day, the Connecticut Supreme Court has declined to accord deference to the Connecticut Department of Labor’s interpretation of travel time, which is less favorable to employers. Sarrazin v. Coastal, 311 Conn. 581 (2014).

As a general rule, an employee’s time spent on activities that are prior and subsequent to his or her principal work activity, such as commuting to and from work, is not working time that must be compensated by an employer. The plaintiff-employee, however, argued he was entitled to payment for his commute because it was undertaken predominantly for the benefit of his employer as he was required to travel directly to and from the job sites in the defendant’s company vehicle while carrying tools and equipment for the job.

The Supreme Court rejected the employee’s claim and held that he was not entitled to compensation for his commuting time. In doing so, the court examined the intersection of state and federal wage and hour laws, including the important issue of preemption of state law by the Fair Labor Standards Act, the federal law that governs wage and hour issues, including whether travel time should be paid.

In addition to the FLSA, Connecticut law regulates when employees should be compensated for travel. The court expressly declined to accord deference to the state Labor Department’s interpretation of its own administrative regulations regarding travel time promulgated in § 31-60-10 of the Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies.

The Labor Department’s “A Guide to Wage and Workplace Standards Division and Its Laws,” a guidebook to wage laws in Connecticut, is frequently relied on by employers and employees in Connecticut. The guidebook’s “Travel Time Requirements” set forth the agency’s interpretation on the compensability of travel time.

The department had read § 31-60-10 to incorporate the same standards in a 1995 U.S. Department of Labor opinion letter on travel under the Portal-to-Portal Act, which is the relevant provision of the FLSA concerning travel time. Connecticut officials interpreted its regulations to mean that travel time of an employee who uses a company vehicle for commuting from home to a job site is compensable unless all parts of a four-factor test are met. The factors are: (1) whether the company vehicle is a type normally used for commuting (i.e., not a dump truck); (2) the employee incurs no cost for driving or parking the vehicle at his or her home; (3) the work site is within normal commuting distance from the employer’s business location; and (4) the employee takes the vehicle home voluntarily. Thus, the state Labor Department’s interpretation of its regulations would have required payment for the employee’s travel time because he was required to take the vehicle home.

The Supreme Court rejected the state Labor Department’s interpretation of compensable travel time because it found the agency had continued to rely on the 1995 opinion letter even though Congress had superseded aspects of the letter when it passed the Employee Commuting Flexibility Act of 1996, which amended the Portal-to-Portal Act.

Congress provided that the required use of a company vehicle, in and of itself, is not the overriding factor for determining whether travel time was compensable where the travel is within the normal commuting area for the employer’s business. The amendment also allowed employers and employees to agree to the use of employer-provided vehicles for commuting to and from work without the commuting time being counted as hours worked.

The FLSA sets a national wage and hour floor above which states may choose to provide additional employee benefits. Only state laws that provide the same or greater protection than the FLSA are not preempted by the federal law. Because the Supreme Court rejected the state Labor Department’s generous interpretation of its regulations governing travel time, the court determined that the FLSA actually conferred greater benefits than those afforded to employees under Connecticut law so that the FLSA preempted the relevant state regulations. The court thus proceeded to resolve the plaintiff’s claims under the Portal-to-Portal Act.

According to Sarrazin, under the Portal-to-Portal Act, “an employee seeking compensation for commuting time must demonstrate that the requirements and restrictions that the employer has placed on that time have imposed more than a minimal burden on him.”

Accordingly, the more that an employer’s commuting requirements burden an employee and prevent him or her from using that time as the employee would otherwise choose, the more likely a court will conclude the commute time is for the predominant benefit of the employer and the employee should be compensated. Further, to the extent the employee’s claim for compensation is based on use of a company vehicle, the employee must demonstrate his commute was outside the normal commuting area and was not subject an to agreement between the parties.

Applying this standard, the court held the plaintiff-employee’s travel time was not compensable because, balancing the benefits and burdens of the arrangement, the employer was not the predominant beneficiary of the employee’s travel time. The Supreme Court reasoned that the provision of the vehicle was a benefit to the employee, and his transportation of company tools and equipment for use in the job was merely incidental to the commute itself, and did not burden the employee so much that the company became the predominant beneficiary of the arrangement. Further, the court relied on the fact that travel to the work sites was within the normal commuting area for the defendant’s business and the use of the vehicle was subject to an agreement between the employee and defendant-company.

The specific takeaway from Sarrazin is that employers should have carefully tailored written agreements regarding the use of company vehicles to guarantee that an employee’s regular commute time is not working time for which the employee must be paid. The more general takeaway is that wage and hour law is constantly evolving and being challenged at both the administrative level and in court.

For example, President Barack Obama recently directed the U.S. Department of Labor to make overtime newly available for potentially millions of currently exempt employees by narrowing the FLSA’s “white collar” exemptions. To navigate the complex array of state and federal laws and avoid costly litigation, employers must be vigilant and work with experienced counsel to ensure continued compliance. •