Can Your Commute Be Compensated? - Abel HR

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Can Your Commute Be Compensated?

When the pandemic hit, many folks traded in long commutes for short walks to the couch where they could knock out a good day’s work in their sweats. As life begins to return to normal and more folks start playing planes, trains and automobiles to get into the office, we wanted to take a look at commuter laws, particularly as it pertains to the likelihood of reimbursement.

In the broadest terms, your commute to work is generally not compensable. In a post by the law firm Pelton Graham, they note that such travel is “considered a normal condition of employment that does not require compensation.” However, they note that there are some exceptions to the rule, and typically it varies from state to state, industry to industry, and even between companies depending on the nature of the job and the circumstances surrounding the commute. This often boils down (at least in the court’s eyes) to when your workday begins. You see, if your workday begins before you even get into the office, such as time spent at home planning driving routes or preparing “substantially” for site visits, you may be eligible for compensation.

However, if you complete a report at home and then travel to work, you likely won’t get paid for your time. Similarly, if your workday begins with your commute, such as swinging by an initial site to pick up your work car or an important part of equipment necessary for your job, you may be eligible for compensation. In this latter case, any travel between that initial site and your main job site may be eligible for coverage. With that, folks tend to get a bit persnickety about what type of equipment qualifies for coverage, with items such as laptops or hard hats, paperwork or documentation, not generally counted in this tally. 

With this emphasis on when your workday begins, the question then becomes whether commutes that take place during the workday might be compensable. Sadly, it is the US Department of Labor (DOL) that is out to burst your bubble. In one scenario, they highlight a worker who dodges out of the office to attend a parent-teacher conference before returning to her home to finish out her work duties. In this case, the commute is not compensable because the employee was off duty or engaged in normal commuting activities. In a second scenario, the DOL offers the example of a worker who clocks in early from home to get some work done, ducks out mid-morning for a doctor’s appointment, then heads into the office to resume her workday. Again, in this case, they note that the worker is “off duty” from the time that she stops working in the morning until she arrives back at the office and resumes work, rendering her journey a normal commute. Not sure what constitutes working? The DOL helpfully notes that “whether an employee is ‘working’ typically can be answered by determining whether her action is primarily for the benefit of the employer,” meaning that they have performed tasks that are “integral and indispensable to the duties she was hired to perform.” 

When it comes to logging your commute as a tax deduction, the IRS also suggests that you are out of luck, save for a few outliers. The basic rule per the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is that commuting expenses, in general, are a personal expense and are never deductible. However, H&R Block notes that if you are required to travel to a temporary work location (that is different from your regular work location) or if your home is your main place of business and you are required to travel to another work location in the same trade or business, you can deduct the expenses. For these purposes, the IRS defines a regular work location as the place that you have reported to regularly for a one-year period, while a temporary work location is an alternative site that you expect to work at for less than a year and can be inside or outside of your current metropolitan area. Another snafu to the tax claim scenario? Many companies give their employees mileage reimbursement for these types of activities, which in turn would render a tax deduction basically obsolete. 

Is your business providing commuter benefits to staff? If so, what do you offer and how has it been received? Let us know in the comments. 

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