What is Work? European Court Says Travel Time is Work Time


Gwenael Piaser
The building housing the Court of Justice of the European Union.

The Working Time Directive is one of the European Union’s cornerstone laws protecting workers’ rights. Passed in 2003, the law stipulates that workers employed by companies operating in the European Union cannot work more than 48 hours per week, including overtime.

But, some companies, seeking larger profits at the expense of their own workers, have found clever loopholes around this law. Workers without a fixed or habitual place of work, such as electricians or peripatetic teachers, are often required to spend hours in transit between jobs without being paid, or even counted as working during the travel time. A new EU court ruling, passed in September, has now closed this loophole, allowing millions of non-fixed workers to receive the compensation they deserve.

In 2011, Tyco International Ltd, a Spanish company that installs and maintains anti-theft security systems, made the decision to close all of its regional offices, and reassign their regional employees to the company’s central headquarters in Madrid. This decision would prove to pose a huge problem for many of Tyco’s employees. Before Tyco closed its regional offices, workers began their paid work day by “clocking in” at their respective regional offices, where they retrieved a company car and a daily task list. At the end of the day, workers would return to their regional offices, return the company vehicle, and “clock out” from their paid time.

After Tyco’s restructuring, however, workers found themselves instead required to communicate by phone to Tyco’s main Madrid office whenever arriving at an address where they were to install one of Tyco’s security systems. The new way of doing business came with a caveat: workers would now only be paid for the time spent working at each address, while travel time between addresses—which could, in some instances, take up to three hours, and, under previous company rules was included as part of work time—would now be considered unpaid “leisure time.”

Tyco employees affected by the decision brought the case to the National High Court of Spain and, eventually, the Court of Justice of the European Union. Challenging Tyco’s actions, the employees’ case said that the company’s new rules violated the Working Time Directive by forcing employees to work more than 48 hours a week in order to make the same wages that they had earned prior to the company’s restructuring.

Under the European court’s ruling, time spent in transit before and after work must now be considered “work time” for workers without a fixed place of work, such as many of Tyco’s employees. To be clear, this does not mean that the average office employee’s 30-minute subway commute to work is covered; the EU’s decision refers only to those workers, such as Tyco’s security system installers, who do not have a habitual place of work to check in to.

Still, this new decision could help thousands of EU employees, who, until now, have been taken advantage of by corporate rules, to receive the compensation they deserve for the hours they work. It is a triumph for workers’ rights across Europe.