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Court Decision Answers the Question: When Are Employees On-the-Clock?

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Content Courtesy of WECA Industry Partner Cook Brown, LLP


Content courtesy of: WECA Industry Partner Cook Brown, LLP

Court Decision Answers the Question: When Are Employees On-the Clock?

In Huerta v. CSI Electrical Contractors, a decision focusing on the construction industry, the California Supreme Court recently provided specific guidance on whether time spent waiting for a vehicle inspection is compensable. The Court also provided guidance on the factors which must be considered when determining whether time spent driving to a remote site after such inspection should be paid as compensable travel time, as well as whether thirty-minute meal breaks should be paid if workers remain on site while on break. While the decision is expressly limited to on-site construction (Wage Order 16), the principles articulated by the Court apply to every California worksite. Accordingly, the Opinion offers helpful insights to all workplaces where employees undergo entrance or exit routines before or after work.

The issues came before the Supreme Court – not through the normal appellate procedures – but by means of a specific request from the federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit for guidance on California law. In requesting this assistance, the Ninth Circuit noted the issues “have significant public policy implications for California workers and employers” and no current California case addresses them specifically.

Mandatory Vehicle Stop

In resolving the first issue, the Supreme Court closely examined the circumstances at the site where plaintiff, George Huerta, was employed. Specifically, it noted that workers were required to pass through a security gate before entering the project’s perimeter. The security gate was located several miles from the perimeter. To pass through the security gate, workers had to show a badge and, when asked, allow a guard to peer into their vehicles. The inspection process could take up to a minute or more per vehicle. Based upon these facts, the Supreme Court concluded that when an employee spends time on an employer’s premises awaiting and undergoing an employer-mandated entrance or exit security procedure, such as a vehicle inspection, such time shall be compensated.

In resolving the second issue, the Supreme Court was required to consider whether the mandatory vehicle stop amounted to an initial work location, comparable to a requirement to check in at a shop prior to heading out to the worksite. The Court recognized that when employees are required to “check in” at a certain location, all time after the check-in should be paid. The Court concluded that the circumstances of a vehicle inspection, however, do not equate to a check-in unless it is required for reasons other than accessing the worksite. The Court expressly held that if the employee was required to pick up supplies, receive work orders, or otherwise perform any work at or during the inspection process, the time spent driving would be compensable.

The Court further clarified that the Employer’s imposition of certain restrictions when driving from the vehicle inspection site to the parking lot did not transform commute time to compensable work time. Although those restrictions – speed limits, bans on passing, smoking and the use of earpods – arguably benefitted the employer, the Court considered them common sense safety rules that did not convert the travel to work time.

Meal Break Rules

The third issue was complicated by the applicability of two collective bargaining agreements governing the project. Under Wage Order 16, meal break rules under the Labor Code do not apply when a collective bargaining agreement governs the worker and addresses meal periods, hours worked, and provides wages thirty percent higher than minimum wage. The Court held that although specific meal break rules under the Labor Code were inapplicable due to the collective bargaining agreements, the employer was still bound to pay employees for time spent on a meal break when and if the employee was restricted to the premises. The Court held that the employer and applicable union could negotiate for an on-site break, but such break would have to be paid.


For non-construction employers, the most important takeaways in the case are two-fold. First, it is a reminder that any time – even less than a minute – spent prior to or after work on activities that benefit an employer are likely to be compensable, even if such activities can be done from the comfort of the employee’s vehicle. Second, notwithstanding the obligation to pay for time spent during a vehicle stop and inspection, the time spent after the inspection to the actual worksite is probably not compensable. Moreover, employers can impose safety restrictions on access roads without concern that such safety measures will transform commute time to paid time.