Lukewarm Take #1: Commuting is Wage Theft

Posted on December 18, 2020

Let’s get straight to the point. Time spent traveling to the office is unpaid time paid by the worker to their employer in exchange for the privilege to use the means provided by the employer. Common working hours impose additional taxation on the worker by expecting all workers to join the gridlock and plan around it.

Time is Money, Right?

In the west we love to say “Time is Money.” We use this to push workers to get their hustle on and “better themselves” by learning new, sellable skills and working side gigs. Especially here in the States we have a habit of shaming folks for not working hard enough or long enough. Somehow people with full time jobs are more deserving than those with part time jobs (even if they have multiple). All this hustle talk has a tendency to emphasize that the work that directly benefits employers is the only work that matters. These discussions disregard work that creates a healthy household, creates a healthier self (which benefits the employer, if only indirectly!), or is provided by the worker implicitly to the employer for free.

Here I’d like to discuss one portion of this freely provided time, our most precious personal resource, the time spent traveling to the laborspace. This time is primarily for the benefit of the employer - the worker is taxed their time for the right to spend more time for the benefit of the employer. There is not enough time to do the minimum to get by well (commute, work, househould maintenance, errands, childcare, etc), let alone do that and remain a healthy or fulfilled human (self care like fitness or selfcare).

Compensating workers for the implicit labor of commuting does not resolve this missing fulfillment but may help offset some issues that workers face with respect to “getting by.” Hopefully it will also remind workers of the importance of their time.

Possible Solutions

There are a couple of obvious ways to resolve this theft for workers that we should consider. These are intended to start discussions, and not to be an end-all solution to this problem.

Allow Workers to Work from Home

The first solution, that has been shoved into the forefront of discussions already, is simply allowing workers to work from home. This trivially resolves this issue for any worker able to be shipped a computer and work from the comfort of their own home. Working from home has been discussed for years, and hopefully will be made permanent for more companies everywhere now that it has been shown to work well. Since discussions regarding WFH have been ongoing for some time I’ll defer the reader to those if you’re interested (without any links for you though - good luck!).

Pay Workers for their Travel Time

A more radical solution for workers unable to work from home is simply paying the worker for their time. Bold, right? Workers just need to be paid for all the time that they provide their employer. Travel time is labor provided by the worker to their employer and should be treated as such.

There are glaring concerns that employers will have with this solution. How is the time measured? What about the time spent dropping kids off for childcare, picking up coworkers for carpools, or running errands? What about workers with differing modes of transportation (driving, car pooling, biking, walking, bussing, etc.)? What if there is road work, or an accident, that inflates the commute time? What about “bad actors” who take advantage of this time “not working” to get paid?

To that the simplest solution is to base the travel time based on their distance to their main workplace. This fixes the travel rate for the majority of workers while allowing them to maintain their existing travel habits.

There are clear caveats to this solution. Workers that do not have a fixed laborplace, or may have one-off days where they need to travel to a different laborplace. To the first, those workers should already be appropriately compensated for that time and maintenance on any personal vehicle they use for that work, although that undoubtedly differs between company and state. To the second issue, employers will need to expect that any worker faced with a sudden requirement to travel farther than usual will likewise produce less that day than on typical days. That is to say, the employer should be expected to eat the cost of the additional travel, not the worker.

Potential Consequences

This solution would absolutely adjust how employers hire. Employers would likely look in the neighborhood of their laborspace for new employees. The flipside of this is that employees could lose some freedom by reducing the range of places they are able to move while maintaining the same job. Given that employers would look in narrower geographic spaces for prospective workers, workers would likely have to move more often to take new positions, increasing the risk of taking a new position even in the same city as your current job.

Update 12/24/2020

This is not what I meant by compensating workers for travel time. There may be some interesting use cases of driverless work vehicles, but lets not get hasty and make workers perform non-driving tasks while in a moving vehicle.

We will need to deal with this as autonomous vehicles become the norm. Today we can look to commuters that travel via train, or workers who fly frequently for work. I’ve never lived somewhere where train or bussing to work was an option, nor have I flown for work, so this is absolutely outside my background. I would like to think workers who fly occasionally for work are not expected to perform other work functions while in transit and that employers aren’t checking up on workers that take a train to see if they’re squeezing in extra work while headed in or out of their laborspace. If this is the case, lets point to these existing standards before letting employers tell us to work in driverless commuter “offices.” And if I’m being naive and this is not the case, and these pressures do exist, let’s start to demand adequate compensation for the work we are already doing AND let’s start demanding that this travel time already represents work being done for the employer that does not represent additional time that must be traditionally productive.

Conclusion

I haven’t seen this issue or argument spelled out before (although I haven’t looked very hard either). I do not suggest that any of the solutions proposed above are correct or the absolutely correct solution. I do strongly feel that workers should be appropriately compensated for all time provided to their employers and that this commute time falls inside and adjecent to the “off the clock violations” bucket of wage theft. That being said, a knee jerk, reactionary solution to this could inadvertently hurt the worker by stripping some freedom of choosing where we live. Some people willingly move to the country and continue commuting to the office in town, and some of those folks would face losing their jobs. A solution that isn’t well discussed or thought out could add another shackle to the worker, tieing them closer to the employer.

All this is speculation, not founded in any research. Maybe these fears are unfounded - what if employers happily transitioned to work from home solutions to minimize loss of productive time? How many workers that must be in person to labor also travel 30 minutes, 60 minutes, or more to get to their laborspace? I honestly have no idea. But we should discuss this.