What is compensable time?

Often it’s clear that time that an employee spends working or performing assigned tasks is time that an employee should be paid for. But, can an employee be paid for lunch breaks? For on-call time? For travel time?

Compensable time is time for which an employee is entitled to receive compensation. Still, the issue remains as to what work counts as compensable time.

Courts define “work” under the Fair Labor Standards Act to mean “physical or mental exertion (whether burdensome or not) controlled or required by the employer and pursued necessarily and primarily for the benefit of the employer and his business.”

However, not all “exertions” are compensable. For example, employees are not entitled to be paid for activities that they only spend an insignificant amount of time doing. Generally, an employee who spends less than ten minutes doing an activity is not entitled to be paid for that activity.

Similarly, an employer does not have to pay an employee for preliminary or postliminary activities—that is, the time before and after an employee begins his primary job. However, an employer must pay for time that is an integral and indispensable portion of the work. For example, an employer does not have to pay employees for time taking on and off safety gear.

Further, unionized employees are not entitled to be compensated for time spent changing clothes or washing at the beginning or end of each work day if that activity is covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

There are also limitations on compensable time when it comes to meal periods, on-call time, and travel time.

According to the Department of Labor, employees are not entitled to compensation for “bona fide meal periods,” which are times when the employee is completely relieved of duty. They do not include coffee or snack breaks, and the employee is completely relieved if he is no longer under the employer’s control—that is, the employee is not required to perform any duties. According to the circuit court that oversees Texas, a “bona fide meal period” is one that is used primarily for the employee’s benefit; the time does not have to be completely for the employee.

Under both tests, the employee who takes lunch at his desk and continues to work must be compensated for that time. Similarly, an employee who is not allowed to leave the premises for lunch, is given a shorter period in which to eat, and is for all intents and purposes on call during the break should be paid for that time.

Whether an employee can be paid for on-call time also depends on whether the employee or the employer is getting the benefit from time. If the employee can use the on-call time effectively for his own purposes, then he is not entitled to compensation for that time.

For example, a hospital worker who is required to be on-call when not working his shift and to be near the hospital is not entitled to compensation if he can use that time to go grocery shopping or run other errands.