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I just got placed through a staffing agency, in the state of California. I'm expected to drive to a client's location and pick up some equipment to use to work from home for the duration of the engagement. I was told I will not be reimbursed for gas for the trip, and was told not to bill for the travel time.

Per the staffing agency:

"The way we think of it is one would not normally charge their employer for the time it takes to get to and from work... We ask that you only bill for time worked."

To me, this seems like unpaid labor. This is not a commute, this is a necessary job function required by the client in order to perform the work. I refuse to perform unpaid labor on behalf of two profitable corporations.

How should I proceed? Bill for my time anyway? Ask for the equipment to be delivered to me? Is there an option I'm unaware of?

Edit: to clarify the relationships here, since some were asking. The "staffing agency" placed me with the "client." I will be a direct employee of the staffing agency, and will perform work for the "client"

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    How far is the drive going to be? – Peter M Aug 3 at 21:12
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    Thank you for your suggestion which I will definitely not take, but I have fully read and understood, but I would never actually do, but I know what you mean, and I know how I'd do that, and why, but I'd never, but you're definitely on to something! – reubengrafy Aug 3 at 22:02
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    California has a minimum of four hours worked per day. You were required to work so you are allowed to receive 4 hours of your wage. Are you expected to work on the same day you pick up the equipment? You would be able to claim travel expenses if you picked up equipment and then work elsewhere on the same day. – DetriusXii Aug 4 at 2:42
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    The reason for this is that the staffing agency likely can't bill it to the client due to the contract they have. It shouldn't be your problem, but they make it so. – Mast Aug 4 at 8:30
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    What happens when the equipment is damaged during transit? If its a work trip, its insured by the company. You want that. They want that. Don't touch company equipment on private time, its an insurance nightmare. You either handle it on company time, or you don't handle it. – Polygnome Aug 5 at 7:26

12 Answers 12

95

This is not a commute, this is a necessary job function required by the client in order to perform the work.

Would you be paid for your travel if you were required to show up on the job site once a week? Probably not.

I wouldn't see as harmful to ask for the equipment to be shipped to you, but this is not a good hill to die on.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Lilienthal Aug 6 at 9:27
  • Well this also depends a lot on what's reasonable. I for one choose to work where I do based on location: I now live 20 minutes by bike away from my home; I accepted less chance to grow for this "convenience". So suddenly having to take a car for an hour+ would most certainly be not "normal commute". And would be "not something I signed up for". – paul23 Aug 6 at 11:12
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    "Would you be paid for your travel if you were required to show up on the job site once a week?" - this is the wrong question to ask. The real question is "Would you be paid for your travel if you were required to travel to the client's site from the job site?". The answer to this question is almost certainly a yes. In OP's case the job site just happens to be their home. Commuting means going from home TO work or vice versa. A home worker does that by walking from their bed to their desk. Any travel which is not commuting is work. – Jon Bentley Aug 6 at 11:14
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    @JonBentley I'm with you, but I also agree with the answer that "this is not a good hill to die on" for the sake of just over an hour in a car. – BittermanAndy Aug 9 at 23:04
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This is not unpaid labor.

Most work-from-home positions have some sort of requirement to report to an office on occasion. This is commuting for that purpose.

If you don't want to make the drive, you can asked if it can be shipped to you, but you should be prepared to handle that expense.

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    I've never heard of an employee being required to bear the expense of receiving the company's equipment before. Not to say it doesn't happen. But my own experience is that a company typically sends you the equipment at their expense. – reubengrafy Aug 3 at 21:24
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    @reubengrafy the problem is that you are not exactly an employee, if I understand this correct you are a contractor working through staffing agency so the balance is different. – Tymoteusz Paul Aug 3 at 21:38
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    @TymoteuszPaul it is more likely that the OP is a W-2 employee of the staffing company and is being sold to the client. That's what has been offered to me by staffing companies in general. – Peter M Aug 3 at 21:41
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    @reubengrafy Would it seem different if the purpose of the meeting were to meet your manager for ten minutes, and you were given the equipment at the same time? I mention that because it seems like most remote workplaces are entitled to ask the staff to come in occasionally. In the last position I looked at, the requirement was even in the job description and would certainly be in the contract. I imagine they could ask you to come in every day if they needed you there. So the only remaining question is whether quarantine changes your obligations to each other. – piojo Aug 4 at 8:02
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    With all of the above considered, if these are honest expenses incurred in the conduct of your employment and are not reimbursed by the employer, then you would be able to at least deduct them on your tax return. – Aleks G Aug 4 at 12:50
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To give a different perspective (which isn't legally relevant since this is in the US): In the European Union these things are covered by the Working Time Directive which is quite clear on these matters.

Commuting time to your fixed place of work is not paid. If you're going to a client or some other work place this is considered part of your work hours and has to be paid. Therefore it depends what is listed as the place of work in your contract whether the given arrangement would be legal or not in the EU. Assuming that it's presumably a one time travel, I would think that this would have to be paid.

There was a ruling from the ECJ a while ago on this matter, see e.g. this news report (haven't found the actual ruling on a quick search).

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    But the point here is that the purpose of the journey isn't to do the work the OP's been contracted to carry out, so it's not commuting at all. – Lou Knee Aug 4 at 18:34
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    A different-different (UK) perspective is that this might well be illegal since, if the trip counts as work then it won't be covered by typical car insurance (which only covers commuting) and thus the OP would be driving without valid insurance. – Lou Knee Aug 4 at 18:40
  • @LouKnee Oh I don't even want to think about the complications of insurance and what that all entails. I'm not knowledgeable enough to weigh in on whether picking up equipment you need for your work would be legal or not - it seems to me that if they paid him this would be a perfectly legitimate work trip, but I couldn't cite any laws in that regard. – Voo Aug 4 at 21:14
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    "Commuting time to your fixed place of work is not paid." This is the key factor. The company only gets to give you one pick-up location. If they require you to pick up material from two different locations, or require you to make more than one trip in one day, it's not "commuting". – Acccumulation Aug 5 at 19:27
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    @employee-X : But if the OP's moving of boxes around the landscape was an "other duties as assigned." then it would indeed be work - which is the opposite of what the agency claims when telling the OP not to bill for the time and gas. They can't have it both ways: either it's work, in which case he should be paid, or it isn't - in which case they shouldn't expect him to do it at all. But it certainly isn't commuting. – Lou Knee Aug 5 at 23:00
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Your contract with the staffing agency should make these things clear. As the agency have said, this is basically a commute. I see the other answers tend to agree with them.

So, read your contract. I expect it to say something like "travel to and from the work site is the responsibility of the employee".

Other than that, you have to decide whether the commute is worth it. For a once-only, 2x35 min trip, I personally would say YES.

If, on the other hand, they asked you to travel four hours each way, every day, I would say NO.

When a staffing agency suggests a job for you, you are free to say no. However, I doubt there is room for negotiations, they will just ask somebody else instead.

Also, if they think you are being unreasonable, you will probably not hear from them again about other jobs. I strongly suspect that they will think you are being unreasonable in this case. Keep that in mind before answering.

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  • To expand on this: there are two contracts here, one between OP and the agency and one between the agency and the client company. OP only has negotiating power for one of those. If the agency and the company already agreed this would not be paid time, then OP has no standing to re-negotiate a contract that they're not a party to. This would of course be different if OP was directly employed by the company. – bta Aug 5 at 16:00
  • This isn't travel to or from a work site. He is not going to the site to do paid work. – David Schwartz Aug 5 at 18:35
  • @bta the OP doesn't care for the second contract, and the agency is technically able to pay the OP even if it isn't payed by the customer in return. – Haukinger Aug 6 at 7:44
  • @bta By that logic, I wouldn't be paid when taking care of our build server, because we can't bill that to our clients with our given contracts. That's just a cheap excuse by someone who wrote a bad contract. – Voo Aug 6 at 15:57
  • @Voo - My point is that OP can't bill the client for that time, they have to work it out with the agency. – bta Aug 6 at 16:03
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It depends on the circumstances. Let's say in normal times you wouldn't be working from home, you would have commuted to the clients' office every day at your own expense. In that case, just pick up things. You save money every other day by not commuting. The "picking up equipment" (that is carrying it from the client's office to your car) is work - you just include it as part of your normal working time.

On the other hand, if the client is 400 miles away, then this has nothing to do with a commute. The driving is work, and the cost of driving is expenses. Getting UPS or Fedex to deliver the items for you would be cheaper.

Also consider how much is at stake for you. Is this a fight that you want to fight, even if you win? If it's a ten mile drive, it's likely not worth it.

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Consider that this gives you an opportunity to meet in person some of the people you're going to be working with or reporting to.

Visiting in person, making a good impression, and learning a bit more directly than you could do remotely is of value to you, and not to the staffing agency.

I'd make this a day-long excursion, which by definition would be paid work hours for the time spent at site. Your travel would be a commute, that is your cost. But its a once-off, and the benefit of putting names to faces will help you intangibly.

It is up to you, but if it were me, I'd make the best of everything and get the most benefit possible out of the trip.

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    This sounds like the best and most diplomatic answer. You could argue that the act of collecting the equipment is billable work subject to your minimum hours, but that seems overly petty. If you can arrange for the visit to double as an introduction/onboarding visit at the same time, that is then undeniably work and you can bill for your time. If it's a short visit, your minimum billable hours might even cover the commute anyway. – timbstoke Aug 6 at 11:31
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I'll first say that if you were unionized (i.e. employees of either the agency's client, direct and indirect; or employees of the staffing agencies), you would have been in a much better position to secure the right of travel reimbursement.

That aside - the question of whether you should push back is to some extent a labor-legal question. I don't live in California nor in the US, but a brief search suggested that

Employers are required to reimburse employee travel expenses as part of the discharge of their duties

assuming your real employee is the travel agency rather than its client (which, by the way, is another interesting legal question with an ambiguous answer in many circumstances) - you may be able to argue that all interaction with the client is part of the discharge of your duties to the staffing agency; in which case it is pretty much as though they're sending you on a business trip.

But this may not be the valid legal interpretation of the situation! A labor lawyer would certainly know; a union activist will likely know; and there might be some NGOs / volunteer groups / government services to make this information available to you.

Also, as @StigHemmer suggests, the contract is important here; I don't know if in the US the contract can trump labor law (maybe it can - the united states are notoriously repressive towards workers), but it certainly helps interpret it in each specific case.

Finally, even if you find out / come to the conclusion that you are entitled to reimbursement, it may still be a better idea to limit the amount of push-back to no more than a formal request - a "hook" to "hang a lawsuit on" later on, when you leave; possibly together with any other payments you were due and did not receive. Make sure to keep track and record of your work hours, days on which you traveled, mileage, car expenses etc. You might eventually not sue at all, but do your due diligence so that you can if push comes to shove.

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I like to die on small hills, but I would not start a relationship by being exploited.

"The way we think of it is one would not normally charge their employer for the time it takes to get to and from work... We ask that you only bill for time worked."

They are correct that you should not bill for time it takes to get to and from work. But unless you are doing work, you aren't getting to and from work.

California's rule on this is, "Each workday an employee is required to report to work, but is not put to work or is furnished with less than half of his or her usual or scheduled day's work, he or she must be paid for half the usual or scheduled day's work, but in no event for less than two hours nor more than four hours, at his or her regular rate of pay."

This law may or may not apply to you. Things get complicated. But the point is not that this is the law but that this is the law for a reason. You should not be doing unpaid work and the fact that the first thing this company wants you to do is unpaid work is them starting the relationship off on the wrong foot.

The very first thing they did is demand you do unpaid work.

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  • If you had a link to cite your quoted rule, I'd up vote this. – computercarguy Aug 4 at 20:47
  • Loophole: "furnished with less than half her usual or scheduled day's work" <- They might argue that scheduled day's work is just picking up the the equipment, and OP was furnished with all of it. Another possible argument is that the employee was not required to "report to work" - that picking up equipment is not "reporting to work". Not sure if these arguments would hold up in court, but I can see them made. +1 for your opening clause! – einpoklum Aug 4 at 23:18
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    I just can't imagine how entitled someone has to feel that an hour of driving to pick up a laptop is "unpaid work" that some "greedy employer" is "exploiting" you for. This is not an interstate drive to pick up a pallet of furniture or something. It's a basic request and a much shorter commute than most people have every single day. – JPhi1618 Aug 5 at 18:53
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    @JPhi1618 Commutes are drives to do paid work. You are paid for the work. And when you choose a job, you factor in the cost and convenience of the commute. This is not a commute, it's a chore. There is simply no comparison. – David Schwartz Aug 5 at 20:26
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    @jmoreno Exactly. It makes no difference to him whether or not his employer gets paid for the work he's doing,. That's his employer's problem. His employer has asked him to do work and he should be paid for that work, period. The employer is asking for the relationship to start off with him doing them a huge favor when they have no relationship capital built up yet. And they don't seem to even realize that's what they're doing! – David Schwartz Aug 6 at 16:30
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At the end of the day it may be better to let it go and just swallow the cost. It may not be worth ruffeling feathers this early into a (employment) relationship.

That aside I think it would be fare to be paid for your return journey.

You normally do not get paid for a commute from your home to your normal place of business. However your normal place of business is your home(office). So you are completing a task of picking up some equipment, which just so happen to be at another office of the company. If you were working for a company moving between buildings you would be paid for that time.

Also for insurance reasons this should be on the clock. If the equipment was damaged or you were in a accident it really is the companies responsibility (because they tasked for this action).

In Australia (which is not OPs local I know) an employer has to pay for health insurance for while the employee is working and until they get home so that is a 'principle' to think about, but may not be important to everyone reading this.

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There are two things that I haven’t seen addressed in any of the other answers. One, the client may be unaware of the staffing agency’s action. It’s possible that while their contract doesn’t require them to pay, that they would be either willing to pay if informed or would reach out and encourage the staffing agency to do so.

You could also suggest that someone else at the staffing agency pick up the equipment and deliver it to you. The account manager or specialist. It is typically their job to work as an interface for any problems between you and the client. Call up your contact, say that since the travel time is unpaid but apparently not a big deal, it should be no problem to pick up the equipment and bring it to you. Note that this may not make the staffing company happy, but it is probably going to make them less unhappy than calling up the client and saying that the worker that was scheduled to start, isn’t.

On thinking about it, there is one other possibility I haven’t seen mentioned: it is frequently the case with staffing agencies and consultation services that the employee has to fill out the equivalent of 2 time cards. One that gets a check sent to their employer and one that gets a check sent to them. Its possible this is all a misunderstanding and that the time is not to be billed to the client, but should be billed to the employer. This also opens up a 3rd option on how to handle it, don’t report it on the client time card, do report it on the staffing agency time card.

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Asking for the equipment to be sent is where you might have some room for "acceptable" negotiation.

Regarding the commute, if I was your manager and not willing to (or able to due to company's policy) pay your commute, i would propose you to work that specific day on site.

If the work from home is something you appreciate, then I wouldn't push too far as you might just loose it, and not win anything in exchange. If it is something you don't want, then you might request spending that day on site or having the commute paid.

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While most answers rightfully suggest that if this is part of your commute, then it shouldn't be reimbursed. I believe there is a bit of nuance you can still use to argue for having the equipment shipped to you.

The way my current employer handles this, is to reimburse for travel time past the average expected commute.
What this means is, my office is 50km from my home.
When I am required to travel to a branch office, any travel distance over 50km is reimbursed, and my time for that part of the commute is counted as work time.

You could request for the staffing agency to reimburse you not for the entire trip, but if they could meet you half-way and reimburse the part of the trip that exceeds your normal travel time.

As someone working for a staffing agency this is probably a much harder sell than if you were a direct employee, but it can't hurt to enter a dialogue about your options.
Just make sure you remember, at the end of the day you're not entitled to any reimbursement.
Make sure you don't step on any toes for something that is essentially a one-off request.

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