Employee commute time in California generally is not compensable as “time worked” unless the employee is subject to the employer’s control and unable to use that time for his or her own purposes.  But is an employee subject to the employer’s control if she is required to carry her employer’s equipment and tools in her personal vehicle?  According to a California Court of Appeal, the answer could depend on the size of the vehicle.

The case is Oliver v. Konica Minolta Business Solutions, USA, Inc., and the plaintiffs were service technicians who were required to drive their personal vehicles to customer sites to perform repairs on printers and other office equipment.  The technicians did not report to an office, but instead started their workdays by driving from home to their first customer location.  After visiting their first customer location, the technicians were paid for their drive time and mileage throughout the day, until their last customer of the day.  The technicians were not paid for their “commute time”—the time spent driving from their homes to the first customer location at the start of the day, and from the last customer location back their homes at the end of the day.

The technicians claimed they should be paid for their “commute time” because the employer required them to carry equipment and tools that prevented them from using that time for their own purposes.  The trial court granted summary judgment for the employer, but the Court of Appeal reversed, finding triable issues of fact.

The Court of Appeal’s decision essentially came down to the size of the technician’s cars.  A company policy required technicians to drive cars with at least twenty-five cubic feet of lockable cargo space, but the company did not enforce this policy.  Instead, technicians were allowed to drive Honda Civics, Toyota Corollas, Volkswagen Beetles, and an Audi TT coupe, some of which had less than half the storage space required by the policy.  Although the company did not have any policy restricting technicians from using their cars for personal pursuits during their commutes, several technicians testified that their cars were nearly full with tools and had to be unloaded before they could be used for personal reasons.  Based in part on this testimony, the Court of Appeal concluded, “if a service technician was required during the commute to carry a volume of tools and parts that did not allow the service technician to use the time effectively for the service technician’s own purposes, then the technician would be subject to the control of defendant for purposes of determining hours worked and entitlement to wages.”

This case highlights how important it is for employers to consistently and uniformly enforce their policies.  Consider how this case may have turned out differently if the employer had enforced its storage space policy.

  1. First, that policy, which appears to have anticipated the possibility that the required equipment and tools would monopolize the space of a smaller vehicle, could have foreclosed claims that the employees were unable to use their vehicles for their own purposes.
  2. Second, given that the company did not enforce its own policy, the Court of Appeal gave no consideration to the fact that the employees who claimed that they were unable to use their vehicles for personal pursuits were violating the company’s storage space policy.
  3. Third, by setting out storage requirements that were significantly greater than the storage in the actual vehicles used by some of the technicians, the policy may have actually supported the technicians’ claims that their cars were nearly full with equipment and tools.