Guest Column: Court ruling costly to employees and taxpayers

By Don C. Brunell

It’s known as the law of unintended consequences. That’s when something ends up hurting the very people it was intended to help.

That’s the case with a recent State Supreme Court ruling that said the time spent commuting in a company vehicle may be considered paid work time. The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed against Brinks Home Security whose employees install and service home security systems at customers’ homes. The employees drive to and from home in company pickup trucks that carry tools and equipment.

The Court ruled that, because Brinks exercised control over employees during their morning and evening commutes (no personal errands, no alcohol in the car, no non-employee passengers, wear seatbelts and obey all traffic and parking laws), the time spent commuting was “work time” that must be compensated. (Ironically, if the company had not imposed such restrictions, it could have been held legally liable for any accidents or damage).

One immediate result of the ruling was a rash of copycat class action lawsuits, as lawyers anticipate big money settlements for back pay. The second result was the decision by many employers to discontinue providing company cars for their employees.

That’s what happened to Kirk Packard, who has worked for a copier repair company for 28 years. Through all those years, Kirk’s employer provided him with a company van and paid for the fuel, insurance and maintenance. The arrangement saved Kirk time and money. Instead of driving his own car 40 minutes to the main office each morning to pick up a work vehicle, he drove directly to his first appointment and drove directly home after his last job of the day.

Now, because of the Brinks ruling, Kirk’s employer has pulled all the company cars. Now, Kirk must leave for work 40 minutes early so he can get to the main office to pick up his company van by his 8 a.m. start time. At the end of the day, he drives back to the main office, drops off his company vehicle, and begins his 40-minute commute home in his personal car.

“We estimate that, at a minimum, this is costing each service technician $200 a month out of their own pocket,” Kirk said. “In summary, because of this ruling, our techs are now taking a pay cut of $2,200 to $6,000 a year and working an extra one to three hours a day.”

In addition, requiring thousands of employees to commute to a central office in order to pick up their company vehicles instead of driving straight to their first job adds to traffic congestion, increases air pollution and consumes more fuel.

The Court’s ruling has created a lot of uncertainty. Because it is unclear exactly what specifically constitutes work time in a company car, many employers are ending the home use of company vehicles in order to limit potential liability for commute compensation and back pay. Also unclear is how the ruling will affect current union contracts that may have provisions that run counter to the Court’s ruling.

However, the biggest unanswered question is how much this ruling will cost taxpayers who foot the bill for the “company cars” for state, county and city employees — social workers, health workers, transportation employees, auditors, inspectors, police officers, firefighters, etc.

If state and local governments are on the hook for compensation and back overtime pay at time-and-a-half for thousands of employees who commute in government vehicles, the cost to taxpayers could be enormous — especially since attorneys are demanding double damages on the presumption that employers acted willfully.

The Legislature can and should resolve these questions by passing common sense legislation, like HB 3294 or SB 6867, that clarifies our state law on this issue. Lawmakers owe it to Washington’s workers — and the taxpayers — to straighten out this mess.

• Don C. Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business.