- The BNSF Railway Company was not liable under the Federal Employer's Liability Act (FELA) for a worker's fatal car accident during his 40-mile commute to the railyard during a snowstorm (Guerrero v. BNSF Railway Company, No. 19-1187 (7th Cir. July 17, 2019)).
- With some narrow exceptions, the FELA does not generally apply to an employee injured during the commute to or from work, the court said. Although there was some evidence that the worker was on the clock at the time of the crash, BNSF was not negligent in failing to cancel the worker's assignment or pay for a nearby hotel room the night before in light of the severity of the storm.
- Because BNSF had no control over the safety or plowing of the roads the worker was commuting on, and was not legally required to "micro-manage" his trip in to work, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of BNSF.
The FELA applies only to U.S. railroad workers, but this case highlights a question of broader concern: When are employers legally responsible for employees outside their scheduled work hours? The question often comes up in the context of pay for nonexempt employees.
Regular commuting (from home to work and back) is not generally considered compensable time under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, although employers are required to pay for travel time in other circumstances.
For example, an employee who is given a special one-day assignment in a city different from the usual worksite and returns home the same day must be compensated for the time spent traveling to and from that other location (minus the time the employee would have spent commuting to and from the regular worksite), according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Additionally, attendance at lectures, meetings, training programs and similar activities must be counted as work time — unless it is outside normal hours, voluntary, not job-related and no other work is concurrently performed.
It's also important to remember that workers must generally be paid for all time worked, even for required activities before or after the official work day (such as mandatory security checks), unless the time involved is minimal.