The obvious answer is that it depends on how heavy the briefcase is--and on whose definition of work prevails. A group of New York City fire alarm inspectors charged that because they are required to carry paperwork weighing between 15 and 20 pounds during their daily commutes, the commutes are work time for which they should be paid.
What happened. New York fire alarm inspectors work for the fire department and are deployed throughout the city to inspect fire alarms at hundreds of businesses. They report to the city's fire alarm inspection unit only on Friday mornings: There, they turn in paperwork related to their week's inspections and pick up the required papers for their inspections the following week. Documents include floor plans for each building, forms and checklists, the building's alarm history, and correspondence between the city and the building's owner. Each inspector begins the day at the first inspection site and ends the day by signing out at the firehouse closest to the final inspection site of the day.
A group of six fire inspectors charged that their briefcases were so bulky and heavy that carrying them increased their commute time by up to 30 minutes a day. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), they argued, that turned their commute times into work for which they deserved to be compensated.
To be paid for their commutes, which are normally not compensable for any employee, the inspectors had to show that carrying their briefcases was an integral and indispensable part of inspection work, which they probably could have proven. But they also had to show that the carrying was work--not so easy to prove. A federal district judge ruled for the fire department that none of the commute time was compensable, and the inspectors appealed to the 2nd Circuit, which covers Connecticut, New York, and Vermont.
What the court said. Appellate judges agreed with the district judge, writing, "The carrying of a briefcase during a commute without any other employment-related activity does not transform the entire commute into work for purposes of the FLSA." And, they added, the employees were free to pursue a chosen activity during the commute, such as reading or listening to music. Even if their commutes took longer with the briefcases, the added time was de minimis, judges said. So the inspectors lost their case. Singh et al. v. City of New York, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, No. 06-2969-cv (2008).
Point to remember: FLSA doesn't define work, and the Supreme Court has said it must be mental or physical exertion performed for the employer's benefit. So courts must take a case-by-case approach.