What is Work?

What counts as work?
The United States Supreme Court defines work as all time spent in “physical or mental exertion (whether burdensome or not) controlled or required by the employer and pursued necessarily and primarily for the benefit of the employer.” (Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. v. Muscoda Local No. 123, 321 U. S. 590 (1944))

What if I’m not doing anything?
The Court also ruled that there need be no exertion at all and that all hours are hours worked which workers are directed or expected, even if you do not have any duties at all during that time. Specifically, the Court recognizes that “an employer, if he chooses, may hire a man to do nothing, or to do nothing but wait for something to happen. Refraining from other activity often is a factor of instant readiness to serve, and idleness plays a part in all employments in a stand-by capacity. Readiness to serve may be hired, quite as much as service itself, and time spent lying in wait for threats to the safety of the employer’s property may be treated by the parties as a benefit to the employer.” (Armour & Co. v. Wantock, 323 U.S. 126 (1944)Skidmore v. Swift, 323 U.S. 134 (1944))

What if I can usually do things for myself during this time?
It doesn’t matter. Our work includes “all the time during which an employee is necessarily required to be on the employer’s premises, on duty or at a prescribed work place”. (Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co., 328 U.S. 680 (1946)) The important part is that you’re on-duty and ready to work. [Emphasis ours.]

How does the Portal-to-Portal Act affect this?
The Portal-to-Portal Act did not change the rule except to provide an exception for preliminary and postliminary activities. This means that driving to and from campus is not work, nor is the time spent booting up your personal computer to check your email at home. However, time spent booting up your computer in your office, preparing your classroom, or donning and doffing safety gear is work. See § 785.34.[26 FR 190, Jan. 11, 1961, as amended at 76 FR 18859, Apr. 5, 2011]

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