Which Hours Must Be Counted as Work Time?

What Counts as Work Time
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Which hours must you count as work time for employees? At first glance, this sounds like a silly question, but it's not. In this article, we'll look at times when you must pay an employee for working.

Why It's Important to Know What's Considered Work Time 

The primary reason for calculating work time accurately is for payment of overtime. If a non-exempt employee works more than 40 hours in a workweek, he or she must be paid overtime at a rate of 1 1/2 times, per federal Department of Labor regulations. This includes all non-exempt employees and any lower-paid exempt employees who are entitled to overtime.

What Is "Suffered or Permitted to Work?"

The central question, according to the Department of Labor, is whether the employee is "suffered or permitted to work." Here's what the DOL means by this term: 

Suffer or permit to work means that if an employer requires or allows employees to work, the time spent is generally hours worked. Thus, time spent doing work not requested by the employer, but still allowed, is generally hours worked, since the employer knows or has reason to believe that the employees are continuing to work and the employer is benefiting from the work being done.

Here's an example: An administrative assistant is at home with a cold, but he continues to check work email and respond to emails. If the boss permits the admin to do this, it's work time and should be counted towards overtime. 

The Department of Labor words this even more strongly: 

It is the duty of management to exercise control and see that work is not performed if the employer does not want it to be performed. An employer cannot sit back and accept the benefits of an employee’s work without considering the time spent to be hours worked.

Do These Hours Count as Work Time? 

  • If a salesperson is traveling from her office to a client's office, is that work time? 
  • If an employee answers a work-related cell phone call while he is at home, is that work time? 
  • If an employee is allowed to eat at his desk, answering phone calls while eating, is that work time? 

The answer in all three cases is "Yes." 

More Details on What Counts as Work Time

An employee is considered to be working: 

  • While doing rework (correcting mistakes), even if done voluntarily.
  • While waiting for work, whether or not the employee has work to do while waiting. The DOL uses the term "engaged to wait," that is, required to wait. 
  • For all time at the place of work, including the employer's workplace or other designated place.
  • If the employee is required to be on-call while at the employer's workplace, but not at home (unless other restrictions are imposed).
  • During short rest breaks, if within the employer's designated length. If an employee extends a break without permission, that's not work time. 

Lectures, Meetings, and Training Programs

Employee attendance at business events must be counted as work time if: 

  • It's within normal business hours.
  • It's not voluntary.
  • It's job-related.

If the time is outside work time, it's voluntary, it's not job-related, and no other work is performed at the same time, these meetings are not considered work time. 

Sleeping Time as Work Time

An employee is required to work for less than 24 hours, sleep time counts as work time, If an employee must be on duty more than 24 hours, the employee and employer can agree to exclude a certain amount of sleep time. 

Travel Time as Work Time

Whether travel time counts as work time depends on the circumstances. Time spent commuting to work is not paid work time. 

Read more details about when you must pay employees for travel time

What Hours Do Not Count as Work Time? 

  • If the employee is on a designated meal break, as long as the employee is not required to do anything or be in a specific place during the meal time. 
  • If the activity isn't for the benefit of the employer (not productive).
  • If the activity is entirely out of working hours.
  • If the work isn't directly related to the employee's job. 

What About Work Time and Salaried Employees? 

Most salaried employees are paid based on an annual salary. The number of hours they work doesn't have any relationship to their payments. Salaried employees work to get the job done, however many hours it takes. In other words, these salaried employees are considered to be "exempt" from overtime. Some weeks, a salaried employee may work 40 hours, some weeks 32 hours, some weeks 60 hours; it all depends on what is required to do the job. 

Notice I said, "most" salaried employees don't get paid overtime. But some lower-paid salaried employees (employees whose salary is equal to or less than a minimum weekly salary of $455 a week ($23,660 annually)) do get overtime pay. For these employees, the work time rules described above do come into play. You can't give them comp time (time off instead of overtime) or bonuses/special payments. Read more about the rules for exempt employee overtime pay.