By Brad Cave
Hundreds of hourly employees sued their former employer alleging that they were due additional overtime pay. They asserted that the company failed to include their $35 daily travel meal reimbursement in their regular rate of pay when calculating time-and-one-half, meaning they were paid less overtime than they were due. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, whose decisions apply to Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, and Utah, recently analyzed their claim.
Calculating Regular of Pay
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires employers to pay employees at one and one-half times the employee’s “regular rate” of pay for all hours worked in excess of 40 per workweek. An employee’s regular rate of pay includes all remuneration paid to the employee, subject to certain exceptions. If a part of an employee’s pay is left out of the “regular rate” calculation, the employee’s overtime rate will be undervalued.
A large group of former hourly employees for a nationwide seismic-mapping services company filed a lawsuit claiming that the company violated the FLSA by failing to include an established meal allowance, which was paid to employees while traveling, in the employees’ regular rate of pay. In their collective action, the parties asserted that the company required employees to travel away from home and stay in hotels near remote job sites for four to eight weeks at a time. Employees then typically returned home for about two to four weeks before traveling to another remote location. They often worked more than 40 hours per week while at the remote location, triggering overtime pay.
Per Diem For Meals
The company provided its employees with a $35 per diem for meals for all days at the remote location as well as the days spent traveling to and from the remote job location. The company did not pay the $35 meal reimbursement on days that employees worked from their home location or when food was provided at the remote job site.
Exception To “Regular Rate” For Traveling Expenses
The regular rate of pay generally must be calculated to include all remuneration for services paid to the employee. One exception to this rule is that employers can exclude from the regular rate all reasonable payments for traveling expenses incurred by an employee in the furtherance of his employer’s interests and properly reimbursable by the employer. The regulations state that this exemption includes the “reasonably approximate amount expended by an employee, who is traveling ‘over the road’ on his employer’s business, for . . . living expenses away from home . . . .” 29 C.F.R. § 778.217(b)(3). The company argued that the $35 meal payments were exempt travel expenses and therefore, need not be included in the calculation of the employees’ regular rate.
Meal Reimbursement Was Exempt Travel Expense
The employees countered by arguing that the $35 payments were not exempt travel expenses because the employees were no longer traveling while they worked at the remote job sites for four to eight weeks at a time. They also argued that the phrase “living expenses” did not include the cost of food. The Tenth Circuit disagreed on both arguments.
The Court reasoned that the employees’ position that they were no longer “traveling over the road” when they reached their remote job site was a “hyper-literal interpretation.” The Court instead read “traveling” more broadly to include not just time in transit, but also time away from home. On the employees’ argument that the cost of food did not qualify as a “living expense,” the Court agreed with prior determinations by the U.S. Department of Labor to find that the cost of food away from home is an additional expense that the employee incurs while traveling for the employer’s benefit and therefore, is a living expense. The Court ruled that the $35 per diem meal reimbursements were exempt travel expenses and need not be included in the employees’ regular rate when determining overtime pay. The Court upheld summary judgment in favor of the company. Sharp v. CGG Land Inc., No. 15-5113 (10th Cir. Nov. 4, 2016). Read more