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Should workers get paid for their commute?

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - NOVEMBER 13: Commuters leave downtown on November 13, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. The Chicago area is one of only a few metropolitan areas in the country to see an uptick in interest in its luxury home market, which contributed to a listing price increase of more than 14 percent in the past year.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - NOVEMBER 13: Commuters leave downtown on November 13, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. The Chicago area is one of only a few metropolitan areas in the country to see an uptick in interest in its luxury home market, which contributed to a listing price increase of more than 14 percent in the past year. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The pandemic changed how we work and how we think about commuting.

Workers are now more likely to see the daily commute as part of their workday.

Today, On Point: Should workers get paid for their commute?


Christopher Wiese, assistant professor of Industrial-Organizational psychology at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Laurens Steed, assistant professor of management at the University of Cincinnati’s Lindner College of Business.

Also Featured

Adarra Benjamin, home health care aid in Chicago, IL.


Part I

ADARRA BENJAMIN: My day typically starts about 3:30 in the morning.

I normally have to get up, get ready. I do have eight dogs, so I have to make sure everyone is at least fed. I’ll leave out the house, I’ll say about 4:30, 4:25. I have to get to work, and I have no other choice on how to get to work. Do I like the commute? No. But is it something, do you always like everything that you have to do? No.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. And this is Adarra Benjamin. She’s 29 years old and works as a home health care aide. Lives on Chicago’s South Side. And this is the story of her daily commute.

BENJAMIN: So my first bus, it’s normally maybe like a 10, 15 minute wait for the bus in general. And then there’s about a 15, 20 minute commute to the second route.

After that, we’ll get there. Hopefully if I timed it correctly, everything times out, I’ll be getting on within five minutes. If not, we’ll be waiting another 25 minutes. That second ride normally takes about an hour. 45 minutes to an hour, depending on how the bus driver drives. So we’re looking at an hour and 30, maybe an hour, 45-minute commute, depending on the day, temperature, feelings of the drivers.

I start work at 6 a.m.

CHAKRABARTI: Her client lives in the heart of downtown Chicago. That’s a bit more than seven miles from Adarra’s home. And as you heard, that seven miles can take her more than an hour and a half. on Chicago Transit Authority buses, but Adarra makes the daily commute to serve her client. He’s paraplegic and Adarra cooks, cleans, washes, bathes.

Basically, she does it all.

BENJAMIN: Majority of the days, if I’m not there, he wouldn’t have anyone else to take care of him. So I am there from 6am until 2 PM, so around 2 I would normally leave because I want to at least try to maybe check on my house. I’ve been gone 8 hours. Check on the house, make sure everything is well, possibly get me some food on the way there.

I’ll be back to my consumer, so I do another hour and 30 minutes home and basically time back. I’ll get back to my consumer, maybe 4 p.m., 4:30 p.m. And then I’m there until 10 p.m., maybe 11 p.m., depending on the night. So that’s where we’re feeding undressing, showering again, and so that we can get him in the bed.

CHAKRABARTI: So Adarra caress for her client from 6 a.m. to around 11 p.m. with that two-hour break in between since she uses her break to go back to the south side and check on her home. Adarra spends up to six hours a day commuting by bus. She makes $17.25 per hour working, which means she can’t afford to move out of the South Side and closer to her client.

BENJAMIN: It’s not something on the wages that I make at this point in time that’s even something that could be put into place to possibly work towards. I really could not afford to live downtown. I don’t even really think I would want to live downtown. It’s a little too claustrophobic for me, unless I can virtually assist him with putting on his clothes and washing him up.

It’s not, it would never be an option, which is something that I think gets forgotten a lot of times. That, especially since COVID, a lot of people forget and don’t appreciate or value the remote option for work. Because there were people like me that while people were at home lounging on their computer during COVID, I went to work every single day, seven days a week. So I understand what it would be, the benefits of not having to go to work every single day. But I also understand the cons of having to pay to go to work every single day.

CHAKRABARTI: Yes, Adarra is one of the millions of essential workers who never got the opportunity to work remotely or from home during the pandemic. But for workers who did, the commute is making a comeback. The Census Bureau recently released a report that found that the rate of people working from home in 2022 dropped to 15%, as the employers are pulling workers back into the office.

That drop continues. It’s 124 million Americans on the road, most of them driving. And commute time is getting close to pre-pandemic levels. It’s now more than 50 minutes on average. According to a recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, there is a strong disconnect between employees and employers. When it comes to commuting, employers generally do not consider it. Part of the working day, employees are more likely to include commute time as work time, which is why a growing number of Americans, especially younger workers, believe they should get paid for their commute. A Newsweek poll found that of workers ages 25 to 34, more than 73% want compensation for their commute.

For Adarra, if her commute counted towards paid time, even if she simply was reimbursed for her bus pass, she says it would positively impact her life.

BENJAMIN: I’m coming to work to make money, to have this spending money to get to work, not having to pay for transportation would help. Even like I said, a reimbursement is fine.

I would appreciate that because even though I would still have to spend the money, I know it would come back, but not having to spend the money at all. Absolutely. That would make a difference. And financially being able to look at it, like maybe in a year, I’ll be able to say $100 a month and afford a little car just to get me to and from, but that would be the difference between saving and not saving. Just a little, that little oversight of things that people take for granted, is vitally important for people like us working in this industry.

CHAKRABARTI: Adarra loves her job, and she says that the man she works for is deeply appreciative of her help and very kind to her.

And her commute isn’t all that bad. There’s a little silver lining there. They’re the people she sees on the bus every day. She calls them her bus family.

BENJAMIN: And it was the bus driver and about five or six Northwestern, which is the hospital here, employees. And we rode the bus every day going home.

Which was like our midnight ride. We rode the bus every day. We saw each other every day for about five and a half years. And these are people I am like embedded to for the rest of my life. I have been to weddings, baby showers, engagement parties. You see these people continuously. So you eventually develop some type of relationship.

I’m on the bus with you for about an hour every day. I would want to have a conversation with you eventually.

CHAKRABARTI: So for now, Adarra will keep commuting to do what she loves.

BENJAMIN: But I don’t, at this moment, see myself doing anything else. I really enjoy it. I find a sense of peace and knowing that I do make a difference in someone’s life, even if I’m just wiping out the corner of their eye or I’m just making a salad, just knowing that when I leave, my consumer tells me, I appreciate you for everything you’ve done today.

Thank you for everything. I really appreciate those things.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Adarra Benjamin. She’s a home health care aide in Chicago. So here is the question for the day. Should workers be paid for their commutes? And in fact, Newsweek, by the way, found that people in their 40s as well, not just mid 30s, all the way up to their mid 40s, the majority of people responding to that Newsweek poll believed they should be compensated for their commute.

I’m joined today by Christopher Wiese. He’s an assistant professor of industrial organization psychology at the Georgia Institute of Technology or Georgia Tech. He’s with us from Atlanta. Professor Wiese, welcome to On Point.

CHRISTOPHER WIESE: Thanks for having me. Happy to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: First of all, let me just ask you, right now, how widespread, if at all, in America amongst employers is the idea of compensating workers for their commute?

WIESE: It’s something that the workforce is definitely considering right now, especially those who are being forced to return to work. You see all of these return to office initiatives and before the pandemic, workers really didn’t consider whether or not they should be compensated for the commute.

But, during the pandemic, they learned that they could do their jobs from home and are questioning why they even need to come in. So for those workers who are going through that returning to office, they’re definitely reconsidering whether or not they should be compensated for that time.

CHAKRABARTI: But are we actually talking about a small slice of workers because, looking at the work from home numbers now, I’m presuming that given who can work from home, it’s mostly office workers and then even perhaps now just a subset of them. Where do you think this demand is coming from?

WIESE: I think it’s coming from all workers who really value their time. The pandemic put into perspective how we spend our time with each other. And if we’re not getting compensated for that time out of work, even if it’s traveling to and from work, people are really trying to reframe how they think about the commute now than they did before the pandemic.

CHAKRABARTI: So it’s the way workers consider the value of their time that’s shifted, versus any of the realities of working, right?

WIESE: Yes. You have to think about, a little bit about the history of the commute, right? When folks started commuting, they’re really, Hey, I have the means to drive into work.

I’m thrilled by the automobile and being able to live further away from work. It gave them a sense of, improved their wellbeing a bit, but over time, we just came to the standard of taking it for granted that this was just part of workday. I think the pandemic really shifted the discussion to reconsidering whether or not the commute should be considered part of the workday.

CHAKRABARTI: Right. And that’s why I especially appreciated us hearing Adarra’s story at the beginning because, she’s one of those millions of people who never got the option. They’ve been commuting forward and backward from work. Regardless of pandemic or no. It’s a considerable percentage of their day.

And should those folks have been compensated the whole time?

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: On Point listeners, you had a lot to say about this issue.

First of all, here’s Janine from Marion, Michigan, and she says, absolutely, yes, people should be compensated for their commutes.

JANINE: I’m an adjunct professor and I have to drive transit buses between counties. It takes me about two hours to get from one county to the next for my second classes. And then about three hours to get home in the evening because they run differently in the evening.

And I would love to be paid for my commute time.

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s Janine from Marion, Michigan. However, John from Hudson, Massachusetts, said absolutely no.

JOHN: As a realtor and a business owner. No, I do not believe that anyone should be compensated more because they commute. If you’re that far away, you need to move.

Compensation in local areas is usually based on the cost of living in that area. If you choose to live in a lower cost area and commute to work, that is a choice that you make.

CHAKRABARTI: We’ll be hearing more from you listeners a little bit later, or actually a little bit throughout this hour. Christopher Wiese is with us today.

He’s an assistant professor of industrial organizational psychology at Georgia Tech. And Professor Wiese, first of all, John actually used, I think, the more accurate word for worker pays and that is compensation. Which includes generally includes much more than strict hourly wages. How would you think that commuting might be factored into that overall sense of what a worker should be compensated?

WIESE: Yeah, that’s a really great question. Compensation can come in many different forms. I think, at the very least, if the zeitgeist is to move towards the compensating monetarily for the commute, employers can offer just paid hourly wages. It could come up to paying for buses or the transit cards.

I know a couple of organizations that do that. It could also come in the form of developing last mile travel initiatives for, take for example, the Coca-Cola here in Atlanta used to have a bus that would pick folks up from MARTA and take them to work. And so it could come, compensation could come in a lot of different ways.

CHAKRABARTI: I wonder if there’s already some unfairness built into the system when you compare different types of work. I’m just thinking of the old adage of time is money, and there are many jobs that actually really embed that into how they charge clients, lawyers, whether they’re in the office or on a subway car, I’m guessing are able to charge billable hours if they’re actually working on their commute. There are a lot of the trades who will charge a client for coming to their home to do work. Or not. Because it’s considered part of the time they have to spend overall in their day in pursuit of their jobs. And those things are just accepted, right?

Therefore, can you talk me through why that issue of time spent getting to work, versus time, and then that should be compensated, versus time that you get to spend at home doing what you need to do. Why is that not applied across the board in the United States?

WIESE: I think one thing that sort of set the stage for this is the Fair Labor Standards Act.

They have spelled out what constitutes a commute and what folks should get compensated for. And the traveling that a realtor does is part of their job, is part of their work. And so they can get compensated for that. But if you’re just traveling from your home to work and back again, that is by definition not part of the workday.

It’s not part of compensation time. So there’s theoretically, I think, we’re talking about here, whether or not workers should get paid for their commute, but there’s also a practical side of laws that may need to be changed in order to maybe force organizations who are reluctant to pay workers for that time to get compensated for their commute.

CHAKRABARTI: So specifically, you’re talking about the Portal-to-Portal Act, right? Within the Fair Labor Standards Act, right? Because I’m seeing here that it. Go ahead.

WIESE: Yeah, I believe so. I’m a psychologist, so I have a high-level view of this.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Okay. When you mentioned the Fair Labor Standards Act, I actually pulled it up here, and I see it right in front of me.

The Portal-to-Portal Act really clarified what employers are legally required to compensate workers for. It includes things like coffee breaks, rest periods of 20 minutes or less, fire drills, meal times, especially if the worker is not relieved of all job duties. A lunch break is included if it’s less than 30 minutes and the employer must provide compensation.

But then for commuting time, if it’s two-year work duties, they are not necessarily compensable under the Portal-to-Portal Act. But they are, workers are entitled to compensation for performing activities that are indispensable to job performance, and maybe under certain circumstances commute actually adds to that.

Do you know, I’m going to lean on your organizational and industrial psychology expertise here, Professor Wiese, we should talk for a minute about okay —

WIESE: Chris.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay Chris. We should talk for a minute about what are the known impacts on worker performance when it comes to long commutes?

WIESE: It’s just really, I think that is a misnomer, so commute time has been the discussion point, whether you’re looking at the popular science articles that are out there, news articles, or even the academic articles, but our research, we found it’s not necessarily the time in which folks spend in their commute.

It’s the quality of that commute. I did my postdoc in West Lafayette. And I had a 20-minute commute to work, and it was great. It allowed me to transition back and forth from work to home. In Atlanta, that’s a different story. Even if I have a 20-minute commute, which I don’t, it’s really about the folks who are driving, or even on a bus.

If you have to switch on and off, it’s the quality of the commute that affects both the workers’ psychological health and their productivity at work. We know from our own research that we pitted commute time, commute quality and commute predictability. So whether or not you have a predictable commute every morning against each other. And saw if it predicted, which one predicted worker wellbeing and worker productivity and engagement best.

And by far it’s the quality of the commute. Time is really less important here than improving the conditions of the commute.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. That is fascinating. So then this leads me to a story you told our producer about even the car makers now, or at least some of them, may be thinking about how to change their cars in order to improve the quality of commute time.

This was someone that you met who is a high-level executive at Ford.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, I don’t recall the manufacturer specifically. But yeah, there’s discussions about how to design a car and it wasn’t just to improve the commute quality. It was to improve the automated vehicles to improve productivity. So what are the features, or the designs or considerations necessary in order to make the commute a more productive time for the worker, which personally, I don’t, I think you can think of the commute as a liminal space between work and home.

So the design features should be providing, say, autonomy for the workers who will choose whether or not they want to engage in work activities or leisure activities. We don’t have a lot of third spaces or liminal spaces in the United States and for whatever reason, the commute has been considered one of them. Now I hear Europeans laughing in the background considering the commute third space.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Okay. Did that car exec hint to you about what kind of changes they were considering? Because as you noted, it’s hard for me to imagine how a worker could be more productive while driving their car, unless it was a fully autonomous vehicle.

WIESE: That’s the main point, is these autonomous vehicle designs where you may call a car to your phone, you’re renting a car service, right?

So you call a car from your phone, this vehicle pops up, you jump in, you start working. And it just takes you to work, it drops you off and then it goes and picks up the next person.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. So they’re really thinking about the future here. This isn’t something we might see in the next two to five years.

WIESE: No, it’s not tomorrow.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So let’s go back and listen to On Point listeners and their view of whether or not they should be compensated for the commute. Here’s Jim from Maidstone, Vermont.

JIM: Commuting is definitely part of my day, but it’s not part of my workday. So therefore, I do not feel like I should be compensated for that time.

CHAKRABARTI: And here’s Sean from Portland, Oregon, and Sean says he understands why commuting time could be considered part of the workday, so that’s different from Jim. Sean told us he’s lucky to have a choice as to whether he goes into work or stays home, and he says if you add up the cost of commuting, it can amount to a great deal of money.

SEAN: If you add up all the differences with the time and cost. For me, it adds up to about $193,000 per year.

And that sounds like a lot, but when you take your hourly rate times one and a half hour round trip for an average commute time of 45 minutes, that’s a lot of money. If you add up the gas, the maintenance and the parking, that’s a lot of money. If you add a family member care for elderly or small kids or elderly pets, that’s a lot of money.

Anyway, if you do the math for each person, it’s more money than you think, because time is money.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s On Point listener Sean from Portland, Oregon. I’d like to bring Laurens Steed into the conversation now. Laurens is a professor of management at the University of Cincinnati’s Lindner College of Business.

Joining us today from Cincinnati, Professor Steed, welcome to you.

LAURENS STEED: Hi, thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: We’ve been talking thus far quite exclusively from the point of view of workers. But we wanted to bring you in order to help us think through what considerations employers might have when it comes to this question of should commuters be paid for the time spent commuting.

Is there any way to estimate, let’s say employers did start paying workers for that time. Is there any way to estimate how much that would cost a business?

STEED: Gosh. I really don’t know how you go about estimating that. And that’s part of the complexity of this overall. It’s just that the idea of paying workers directly for a commute.

So if you’re compensating them for the time they spend on the road or on the train or however they’re getting to work, it opens up a lot of complex logistical decisions for organizations that I’m not sure they have the capacity to deal with right now. And that I think is inherently, like the issue here is there are a lot of ways that employers can help defray some of these commuting costs, but the actual hourly compensation, I think, would be pretty difficult.

CHAKRABARTI: I wonder if there’s also, we’ve been talking about the sense of unfairness maybe that workers feel, workers who wish they were paid for their commute. Because they are losing that time, the autonomy they could have with that time. But I also wonder if there’s potentially a different kind of unfairness that needs to be thought about in this equation.

And that is if you’re compensating a worker for their time behind the wheel coming in, but there happens to be someone who lives more closely to work, but they’re doing the same job. Would that, would there be a way to work around that unfairness?

STEED: Yeah, it opens up a lot of fairness and equity issues.

If the employer is paying the employee for their commute time, does that mean they get to weigh in on, “Hey, you need to take the train, because it’s more efficient, even if you prefer to drive.” Or how does an employer who chose to live next to the office feel if they now learn that their colleagues who live much further out are getting paid for that time and they’re not.

So there’s questions about fairness and equity in the way that it’s administered and even the way employers might make decisions. So if I’m interviewing two candidates and they’re both fantastic and qualified for the job and one lives an hour away and one lives walking distance to the office, does that mean I prefer the one with the shorter commute?

Cause it’s going to cost me less as an employer. So thinking through some of these issues is important to do in thinking about administering this.

CHAKRABARTI: But the world of work has changed, right? Undoubtedly, because of the pandemic. And I wonder how employers are thinking about responding to people saying look, we were able to work remotely or work from home through the pandemic, and our business’s function.

We did our jobs very well. And now that you, employer, are demanding that we come back into the office, we’re in a different world now. If I can do my job just as well as home, at home, shouldn’t there be some kind of compensation for the time that I lose getting in to work? That is definitely something that I think employers are hearing from their workers now.

How could they, how should they respond to that?

STEED: For sure. And I think there are ways that employers can help defray some of these commuting costs without maybe going into the morass that might be directly paying for a compensable time of spin on the road. A lot of employers already offer some form of commuter benefits, and that might be a commuter benefits card where you can take out pretax money as an employee. And employers might contribute too, and it helps defray some of those costs.

They can use that to pay for parking, or they can use that to pay for transit passes and help cut some of those commuting costs down. That can be a big savings. I also think it’s worth thinking as an employer, carefully and strategically about what a return-to-work policy or initiative looks like.

So if you do have employees who are working from home and doing a good job of doing so, can you be thoughtful about when you need to have them come to the office, if they really need to be in the office every day, or can you keep some of that flexibility in there, some of that hybrid work that allows them to maybe not commute every single day.

Or maybe if you really think it’s core to your organizational strategy and culture that you need your employees in every day, can you allow employees to have a core work time? Maybe they come in from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. or you need them there from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., but they can commute in at different times to help at least reduce the amount of time they’re on the road or defray some of that traffic.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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