The Connecticut Supreme Court Holds that the FLSA Preempts State Travel Time Law

In Sarrazin v. Coastal, Inc., 311 Conn. 581 (2014), the Connecticut Supreme Court analyzed when an employee’s travel time between home and work constitutes compensable work time.  The Court affirmed the decision of the trial court in holding that a plumber who carried company tools in a company vehicle during his daily commute to his jobsite and home was not entitled to compensation for that travel time.  He was, however, entitled to overtime compensation for the after-hours time he spent picking up tools or equipment from the company’s warehouse. 

Factual Background

The plaintiff was a plumber whose work involved travel from his home to a designated jobsite, which would change occasionally.  His daily round-trip travel time was approximately two hours.  During his employment, the plaintiff was promoted to foreman and at that point he was provided with a company vehicle for his daily commute to the jobsite. 

The plaintiff had to keep some of the employer’s tools and equipment in the vehicle to bring back and forth from his home to the jobsite. Occasionally after regular working hours, the plaintiff had to pick up tools and equipment from the company warehouse.

The plaintiff drove the company vehicle until it was totaled in an accident.  He then drove his own truck for a period of about eight or nine months until the company provided him with another vehicle.  The employer paid him an extra $50 per week to drive his own truck.

The plaintiff was eventually demoted and no longer entitled to drive a company vehicle for his daily commute.

The Plaintiff’s Claims and the Trial Court Case

The plaintiff claimed he was entitled to overtime wages for the daily commute between his home and the jobsite and the after-hours trips to the warehouse to pick up tools and equipment.  The plaintiff also claimed he was entitled to compensation for cleaning the vehicles (whether his own vehicle or the company vehicle) and organizing the tools after he arrived home each day. 

Following a bench trial, the trial court found the employer liable only for payment of overtime compensation for the plaintiff’s after-hours trips to the warehouse.  The trial court held that the plaintiff was entitled to recover overtime compensation by way of damages for those trips in the amount of $641.44.

The Appeal

On appeal the plaintiff claimed the trial court incorrectly held that the FLSA preempts Connecticut law governing overtime wages and travel time, and that it improperly applied federal standards in denying him overtime compensation for his travel time.  He also claimed error in the trial court’s failure to award him attorneys’ fees.

The Connecticut Supreme Court’s preemption analysis focused on whether Connecticut travel time law was in irreconcilable conflict with federal law.  If so, preemption would apply.  The Court explained that state laws providing less protection than the FLSA are preempted because they are inconsistent with the federal statutory scheme.  Here, preemption would apply if the state’s overtime laws and related travel time regulations were less generous to employees than the FLSA.  The Court further reasoned that the travel time analysis was thoroughly intertwined with the overtime analysis because travel time laws determine which activities are compensable.

The Court’s analysis of the FLSA and the Portal-to-Portal Act focused on the Employee Commuting Flexibility Act of 1996 (ECFA), which clarified the circumstances under which an employee’s use of a company vehicle for commuting would be compensable. The ECFA provides that an employee’s use of a company vehicle for commuting and activities performed by an employee incidental to that use are not considered part of the employee’s principal activities if the employee’s use of the vehicle for travel is within the normal commuting area for the employer’s business or establishment and the use is subject to an agreement between the employer and the employee.

The Court stated that under federal law compensability turns on whether the employee’s commuting time is integral and indispensable to the principal work activity.  To answer this question, courts weigh the benefits gained by the employer and the burdens imposed on the employee by an employer’s demands or restrictions on the employee’s travel time.  An employee seeking compensation for commuting time must demonstrate that the requirements and restrictions that the employer has placed on that time have imposed more than a minimal burden on that employee, preventing the employee from using commuting time as he or she wishes.  If the employee is using an employer’s vehicle for commuting, the burden is on the employee to prove the commute was outside the normal commuting area and was not the subject of an agreement between the parties.

After reviewing the legal standards under the Portal-to-Portal Act and the ECFA, the Court analyzed whether Connecticut state law conferred the same or more favorable benefits to employees.  The Court concluded that state travel time law was less favorable than federal law to employees and was therefore preempted by the FLSA.  In reaching this conclusion, the Court analyzed the plain language of the Connecticut regulation, which does not provide for compensation for an employee’s commute time.  Therefore the Connecticut regulation was less favorable to the employee than the FLSA.  In reaching this conclusion, the Court disregarded the Connecticut Department of Labor’s interpretation of the regulation as set forth in its Guide to Wage and Workplace Standards.  The Court concluded that the Department of Labor’s interpretative guidance had not been promulgated pursuant to any formal rule-making procedures or articulated pursuant to any adjudicatory procedures, had not been time tested, or subject to judicial review in the state, and therefore the Court accorded it no deference.

Finally the Court denied the plaintiff’s claim for attorneys’ fees because there was no evidence of bad faith, arbitrariness or unreasonableness.

Implications for Employers

This decision is helpful for Connecticut employers in that it makes travel time analysis consistent with the FLSA.  Employers must comply with the FLSA regarding employee travel time and use of company vehicles, and they need not add any overlay of Connecticut law to their analysis.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.