Normally, employees are not paid for time spent commuting from home to work and back again. However, earlier this month, the 9th Circuit, in Alcantar v. Hobart Services (2015 WL 5155449), held that an employee might be compensated for this time if he commutes in a company vehicle and is held responsible for damage to or theft of the vehicle or the work tools kept inside the vehicle.
Hobart services commercial food equipment. Hobart’s service technicians drive to customer locations in company vehicles. The technicians are given a choice between commuting home in their company vehicles or leaving the vehicles at a Hobart branch office overnight. If they commute home in their company vehicles, they are paid for the time they spend driving from their homes to their first assignment – but only to the extent that the commute falls outside of their “normal commute” (which is defined as the time it takes a technician to drive from home to the nearest Hobart branch office).
Alcantar claimed that he should be paid for all of his commute time because Hobart placed restrictions on the use of company vehicles (i.e., no passengers without prior approval, no transporting alcohol, no unapproved personal use of the vehicle, etc.). And, although Hobart’s policy allowed him to leave the company vehicle at a branch office, Alcantar argued that this was not a real choice because there was limited secured parking at these offices. This was important because under Hobart’s policies, Alcantar was responsible for all of the tools and equipment in the company vehicles (which had a total value somewhere between $5,000 and $80,000). Therefore, without secured parking, Hobart would be forced to leave the vehicle in an unsecured area. Should the vehicle (or the tools inside) be stolen, Alcantar would be responsible for the loss. Accordingly, Alcantar argued that he had no choice but to park his car at his (presumably more secure) residence.
In a split decision, the majority of the Court agreed that a reasonable jury could find that Alcantar’s “choice” to drive his company vehicle home was illusory and, therefore, reversed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment. The dissent, on the other hand, found that the choice was not illusory because Alcantar (and others like him) could be liable only if the theft occurred as a result of an employee’s negligence (e.g., if the employee failed to lock the doors). Since Hobart specifically authorized the employees to park the vehicles in unsecured locations, there was little evidence that an employee would actually be liable for any losses.
The majority opinion further reversed the denial of class certification because the question of whether Hobart required its technicians to commute home with their company vehicles raised a common question that was capable of class wide resolution. The dissent did not comment on class certification, finding that summary judgment was properly granted by the trial court.
“Travel time” class actions in California have been sparse, given that few employers provide company vehicles to employees and even fewer employers exercise control over the employee’s commute time. For those rare employers who fall into these categories, Alcantar may be a warning to revisit company policies and minimize any restraint on the employee’s commute time and parking preference.