Is your employer paying you properly for your work hours? The answer depends on what counts as work time and what does not. The basic rule under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is that time you spend that benefits your employer and that your employer controls is work time, which must be paid. This might include time during which you are not actually working, such as travel time and training.
Work Hour Basics
Under the FLSA, you are entitled to be paid for all time during which you are “suffered or permitted” to work. This includes not only your scheduled work hours—for example, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday—but also any work you do voluntarily. If you stay late several days a week to finish your work, your employer must pay you for that time, even if you weren’t asked to burn the midnight oil. If your employer requires employees to get permission before working overtime, it can discipline you for working unauthorized overtime. However, you still must be paid for your time.
Some employees are required to handle a task or two before they begin work or before they leave for the day. These activities count as work time—and must be paid—if they are an integral part of the employee’s primary work duties. Consider the following examples:
- An employee who needs to wear heavy protective gear to work with toxic chemicals spends ten minutes each morning and evening donning and doffing the gear. Because this task is a necessary part of the employee’s job, it must be paid. On the other hand, an employee who showers and changes after biking into work is not entitled to be paid for that time, because it is not necessary to do his or her job.
- An employee who arrives at work to stock shelves half an hour before starting a register shift must be paid for that time, because it is one of the employee’s job duties. However, an employee who must wait in line for a security screening before entering the employer’s office building is not entitled to be paid for that time.
You are not entitled to be paid for commuting time between your home and regular work site.. However, if travel is part of your job—for example, because you must go to client offices to troubleshoot computer problems—you must be paid for that time.
If you take trips for work, your right to be paid depends on the length of the trip and when you travel. You are entitled to be paid for all time spent working on the trip. For example, if you do work on the plane ride, you must be paid for that time.
For same-day trips, you are entitled to be paid for travel time, less the time it takes you to get to and from your home to the travel hub (for example, the train station or airport). For example, if you travel out of town by train, you are entitled to be paid from the time you arrive at the train station through the time when you return to the train station in the evening. This means you won’t be paid for your travel to and from your home to the train station, even if it takes longer than your usual commute.
For overnight trips, you must be paid for travel that takes place during your normal working hours. If, for example, you usually work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., you are entitled to be paid for travel taking place during those hours, even if you travel on a day you normally have off (for example, on Saturday or Sunday).
Waiting and On-Call Time
Time you spend waiting at the worksite must be paid. Courts call this time during which you are “engaged to wait.” Examples include time a receptionist spends at the front desk waiting for the phones to ring and time a delivery person spends waiting to pick up the next package.
For time you spend on call away from the worksite, your right to be paid depends on how much control your employer has over your time. If you can wait at home or elsewhere while doing what you want, you are likely not entitled to pay. If, on the other hand, you have to stay within fifteen miles of the workplace and report to work quickly after getting called, you may be entitled to pay for your on-call time. To learn more, see Getting Paid for On-Call Time.
Meal and Rest Breaks
If you are relieved of all work, your employer does not have to pay you for breaks lasting more than 20 minutes under the FLSA. You must be paid for shorter breaks (20 minutes or less) and for any “breaks” during which you have to work. Some states require employers to provide paid rest breaks and/or unpaid meal breaks; check with your state labor department for more information. For more on this topic, see our article on meal and rest breaks.
If your employer requires you to attend training for your job, you must be paid for that time. However, you don’t have to be paid for voluntary training that takes place after work hours, is not related to your job, and does not require you to do any work. For more information, see Does My Employer Have to Pay Me for Training?
Questions for Your Attorney
- My employer says that I don’t get any breaks because my shift is too short. Is this right?
- Can my manager keep us from clocking in until 9 a.m., even if we have to be at work at 8:30 a.m.?
- We have to be at our employer’s main building at 8 a.m., when we get picked up in buses and taken to our work site for the day. Is the time we spend on the bus paid?