Cruising for wages

What would mean to you, as an employee, if your company gave you a car -- the same car you used all day to perform your duties -- and allowed you to take it home and drive it to and from work? The company covered the gas and the cost of repairs. You could only use it for work or to commute to work. Good deal? Really? It's an issue in a wage and hour lawsuit that was filed this week in federal court in Camden.

Naturally, I neglected to mention a little wrinkle. The cars in question are a police cruisers and the employees are police officers who live and work in Franklin Township, N.J.

Three current and former officers filed suit against the Gloucester County township, claiming they were required to work at least 10 minutes before and after their shifts, but were not compensated for their time. They had other complaints about their wages -- and part of the complaints were that they did not receive overtime when they should have. You can click here to read my story in Thursday's Inquirer. 

A third and more complicated issue involved the use of the cars. The suit said that the officers are not compensated when they, on their way to work, in their township-issued police cars are asked to respond to police emergencies. I spoke with the police chief, Michael Rock, and he told me that they are compensated, but informally. If they have to work on the way to work, they get out earlier, or take a slide later in the week. 

Rock explained that giving the officers cars benefits the township. (The cars are only offered to officers who live in the township.) Because one officer controls one car, rather than using a fleet approach, the cars tend to be better maintained. Many cars are eight to 10 years old. When the cars are driven to and from work, the citizens see more cars on the street and associate that with a feeling of safety. And, in fact, the police can and do respond while driving. Also, when the cars are parked in driveways, they may act as a deterrent in the neighborhood, warning a would-be criminal that a police officer is nearby.

But there's another complication.. The officers are required, the lawsuit said, to contact the police dispatcher as soon as they get in their cars and begin their commutes to police headquarters for the start of their shifts. That way, if something comes up, the dispatcher knows the officers are enroute.

Here's the question: Does reporting to the dispatcher effectively put them on the clock? Because these officers are in their police cars, because they are expected to look around as they drive and resolve any issues that could occur, because they are expected to respond to emergencies, are they on their time or on company time?

The officers' lawyer, Michelle Douglass of Northfield, said the law isn't completely clear on that point. One test for employment is whether the employee has the freedom to do what he or she wishes during a period of time, or whether the employee is subject to direction from the employer. Clearly, these officers are subject to direction from the dispatcher enroute to work. Also, clearly, commuting time is not compensated.

My question is this: Is it a value to the officers to have the use of the car? How is that value translated in terms of dollars? In a family, for example, the officer's ability to have a car for commuting may mean that the family can get by with one car, not two. That's certainly a benefit. Does that benefit outweigh the wages, that may or may not be due? Will enforcing the law, if it applies, help or hurt the officers? Interesting.

Here's the case citation: 1:13-cv-03761  Estelle Hughes, et al., vs. Township of Franklin.