Pay Me for My Commute

Callie Enlow — In the Balance

Like most American urban dwellers, I’m a little obsessed with affordable housing these days—mainly how the lack of it is edging all but the wealthiest among us further and further away from our city jobs. Commutes are getting longer, which isn’t good for our environment, infrastructure, or personal well-being. During one recent, particularly slow-moving trek into work I started thinking, “Hey, why aren’t employers more concerned that their employees can barely afford to live within a few miles of their jobs?”

Companies don’t care how long it takes people to get to work, of course, because they don’t have to; it rarely affects their bottom lines. But what if businesses had to pay for employee travel time?

According to U.S. census data, in 2015 the average commute time in this country was a little over 26 minutes each way, or about 10 percent added on to your standard 40-50 hour workweek for which you’re not getting paid. Other workers, of course, face even steeper travel burdens, like a nurse in the Bay Area interviewed for a July New York Times story who reports spending four hours a day in gridlock traffic because she can’t afford to live any closer to her job at a San Francisco hospital. If commuting is a couple of minutes-long chunks of your day, perhaps you’re not too worried about it, but for the nurse and many others on the wrong side of that average American commute, maybe it’s time we imagine the changes that could come if our employers helped shoulder the burden of getting to and from our jobs.

Frankly, I’m not sure why we don’t already conceive of our commutes as work. It seems so simple: People should be compensated for all work-related travel, because it’s a chore, takes time away from non-work activities, and costs employees money. Sure, most of us probably aren’t checking email, jabbering away on conference calls, or doing research as we make our way to and from work, but we’re not doing much of anything else either. Call me old-fashioned, but I thought wages were a monetary trade for the use of our time.

Yet the U.S. government has spent decades twisting itself into logical knots to justify employers not paying workers for transit time. The Fair Labor Standards Act explicitly states that employees do not have to be compensated for travel between home to work—for the most part, anyway.

In fact, there are several circumstances in which non-exempt (aka hourly) employees can credibly bill for travel time, though getting into all of them is, as one article on the subject described it, “a rat’s nest.” For instance, employees who need to take care of essential business at home before heading out to a work site can count those tasks, as well as the subsequent commute, as paid time. The legal case that led to this allowance involved an insurance appraiser who often communicated with clients and co-workers from home and planned her day’s travel before driving to her first work location. Likewise, traveling for special circumstances like conferences and training held in areas outside one’s typical place of employment is also generally understood to be compensated, as per the Department of Labor and the FLSA.

I should also point out that it’s not as if the United States business sector is alone in neglecting to pay wages for everyday commuting—this is an international norm, though countries in Europe are far more likely to issue company cars (to defray wear and tear, and gas expense) and to pay employees for the time required to travel to different work sites (for jobs like home health aides, electricians, or home inspectors).

There are at least a couple of different ways companies (and for the sake of argument, let’s assume that these rules would have the same small business exemptions as other FLSA rulings) could offer compensation for commute time. For instance, they could increase compensation by about 10 percent for their salaried employees or decide that the expected 8-10 hour workday includes travel. For hourly workers, this is even more straightforward; they can just be paid for the additional hour or so they commute. Especially as lower-income workers are less likely to live near their place of employment, and more likely to rely on slow public transportation), just this switch alone could help raise wages that have stagnated for decades.

The scenarios above are decidedly win-win for employees, but employers would likely be less than thrilled by something that increases payroll or decreases productivity in any way. I’d argue though, that paying workers for their commutes would not necessarily adversely impact businesses in the long-run.

Although businesses could get fewer hours from each employee if they had to factor in commuting time as part of the workday, workers would see increased quality of life, generating greater efficiency and creativity on the job. In fact, a recent study conducted by researchers from Harvard Business School, the University of British Columbia, Maastricht University, and VU Amsterdam identified “time scarcity” as a serious problem affecting people’s overall well-being. Reclaiming time spent on non-essential or loathed tasks (like driving during rush hour) made individuals demonstrably happier, researchers found. The study is part of a growing body of research that suggests happy workers are more productive and their cognitive abilities greater than their unhappy colleagues. A 2015 study even quantified this: Happier employees were 12 percent more productive than their less satisfied peers.

Still, savvy employers would likely find new motivation to reduce commuting time for employees. Perhaps this would come in the form of a firmer commitment to remote and flexible work schedules, so employees could come in during off-rush hour times or not at all. Maybe employers would glom on to Silicon Valley trends like providing nearby housing for workers, or sponsoring private mass transportation options (like the hated Google bus), which could be outfitted so business could be conducted during the commute.

But the greatest gain from paid commutes could be a much more pronounced business interest in the housing, zoning, and infrastructure policies that affect neighboring communities. One imagines a scenario in which, instead of obsessing over square footage for an employee parking lot, a company scouting new factory, store, or office locations asks pointed questions of local government about the distance to housing its employees can afford, or express bus or train options, or roads that aren’t clogged with traffic.

In fact, Facebook recently announced plans to take matters into its own hands with an upcoming Menlo Park expansion called Willow Campus. “Working with the community, our goal for the Willow Campus is to create an integrated, mixed-use village that will provide much needed services, housing, and transit solutions as well as office space,” announced John Tenanes, Facebook’s vice president of global facilities and real estate, in a July 7 announcement on the company’s blog. Part of the plan includes 1,500 housing units, 15 percent of which will be offered at below-market rent. The company hopes the nearby housing will ease traffic woes, but Tenanes also stated Facebook would be investing heavily in highway and transit projects to further lighten rush-hour commutes. He noted archly, “The region’s failure to continue to invest in our transportation infrastructure alongside growth has led to congestion and delay.”

Meanwhile, in most states, private citizens have had little luck pushing local governments for widespread change and the heavy investment required to get faster, more reliable public transportation and accessible housing off the ground. For each effort in this direction, there’s almost always a politically powerful “not in my backyard” crowd opposing such plans for fear they will negatively affect property values, quality of life, or tax bills. Reports abound of communities from Yonkers to the Dallas suburbs vociferously opposing and successfully halting affordable housing developments. Many public transportation options stall out in the U.S. due to similar concerns, or don’t receive proper funding to keep existing trains and buses clean, time-efficient, and affordable. A united business community lobbying for these types of investments on the merits of reducing employee commuter time could be a strong counter to the NIMBYs, especially in areas where local government is less swayed by pro-environment or subsidized housing arguments.

As a local politics reporter in Texas, I often watched municipalities and counties ignore these issues, instead falling over themselves to provide tax breaks and other attractive economic incentives to businesses they believed would bring in quality jobs and tax revenue. By compelling major companies to consider employee commutes as part of their expenditures, the nature of those economic development deals could change, placing an emphasis on public infrastructure and quality of life considerations that would benefit all residents, not least employers and their employees.