I am very interested in travel time cases. There are some nuanced concepts hovering around travel time, especially the concept of what constitutes non-compensable home-to-work travel. In an interesting case, a possible class of welders employed at a petrochemical plant near Pittsburgh will now litigate those claims in state court, according to a federal Judge. They are seeking compensation for the time being shuttled to and from the construction site from the off-site parking/staging area. The case is entitled Hooks et al. v. Great American Welding Co. et al. and was filed in the Court of Common Pleas for Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.
The parties recognized that the federal court lacked jurisdiction over the dispute. As the case goes back to state court, the workers will test their claims that the time was compensable. They claim that they shuttled back and forth and then would spend additional, extra time to put on (and take off at day’s end) safety gear. Then, they had to walk to their work locations where they then clocked in and began getting paid. The “commuting” from the staging area took between 20-60 minutes and they claim even the line to get onto a shuttle bus was almost one hour.
The Company had removed the case to federal court under the terms of the Class Action Fairness Act which mandated that cases in which the damages could exceed $5,000,000 were to be litigated in federal court. In response, the plaintiffs lowered their claims as to the amount of time they asserted they waited in line or rode the buses. They lowered their time estimates to 1.5 hours per day, as opposed to several hours per day. Thus was done to keep the amount possibly at issue, even with liquidated damages and attorney fees, under five million dollars.
The workers had charged that the Company was inflating its estimates of what the damages could be, so it could remove the case to federal court. The Judge initially denied the motion to remand but allowed discovery on this specific jurisdictional issue. The workers charged since the Company had access to the records regarding the shuttle system and clock in/out times it was exaggerating the amounts at issue. The truth is that most defendants do want to be in federal court, as opposed to (any) State court where employers are concerned about the “prejudice” that may inure there against their positions. After some discovery, the parties both voluntarily decided to remand the matter.
There have been a number of these staging area cases and they have mostly gone for the employer. The theory is that the staging and shuttle riding is a continuation of the home-to-work travel which is always non-compensable. That is what I believe. Now, the result may change if they had to wait in long lines and then don safety gear or other work-related apparel. On balance, however, I believe that when it is not possible to go directly to a site due to security concerns, especially after September 11, the staging area cases will fail for the workers.