The Linn-Benton-Lincoln Education Service District provides services to 12 school districts across three counties. The majority of its certified employees are itinerant, providing services at various schools within the ESD. Most are headquartered in Albany. Travel time to school sites ranges from 15 minutes from headquarters to 2 hours away. Under past practice, travel time in excess of the employee’s regular commute (i.e., the time from home to “headquarters”) was considered work time. Employees could either adjust their schedule within week, or earn flex time for travel that occurred before 8:00 a.m. and/or after 4:00 p.m. In addition, the contract recognized that employees could “occasionally” be expected to work 30 minutes outside of their regular workday.
In September 2015, the ESD changed its policy regarding travel time. Under the new policy, the workday for employees working more than 30 miles from home base would be adjusted by 30 minutes in the morning and afternoon to reflect travel time, but any additional travel time would be treated as “commute” time – i.e., not compensable. In addition, the ESD announced that “occasionally” would be interpreted to mean four times per month.
The Association grieved these changes. The ESD claimed that its policy was consistent with the contract and, to the extent practices differed, it was because supervisors were unaware of how employees were calculating flex time. The ESD also argued that the Association failed to follow applicable procedures. Arbitrator David Stiteler rejected all of the ESD’s defenses. He found that under the plain meaning of the word, “occasional” means from “time-to-time,” i.e., neither a frequent nor regular occurrence. Therefore, the ESD violated the contract by expecting employees to work 30 minutes extra regular basis (four times per month).
Turning to travel time, the Arbitrator found that the clear and consistent practice had been to treat an employee’s travel time in excess of their regular commute time as work, and thus compensable. In addition, he found that the contract had not been interpreted to limit travel time for worksites closer than 30 miles away, if it actually took more than 30 minutes to get to the worksite, which was frequently the case. As a remedy, he ordered that the ESD to rescind its policy guidance and return to past practice. This was a complete victory for the Association. Employees had testified that they felt betrayed by the ESD’s actions and extremely burnt out. Moving forward, the ESD will need to honor its contractual commitment and not solve budget issues on the backs of its employees.