On November 14, 2018, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held in Baouch v. Werner Enterprises, Inc. that per diem travel payments made to truck drivers driving away from home at night as reimbursement for travel expenses are “wages,” even though not taxed as part of an “accountable plan” under Treas. Reg. §1.62-2(c)(2). To qualify as an “accountable plan” a payment plan has to meet the IRS’ business connection, substantiation and return of excess expenses requirements. The Court held that the payments under the accountable plan were part of the drivers’ “regular rate,” as they were made as remuneration for work performed under the FLSA. The Court held that representations made by the employer to the IRS were not inconsistent with the FLSA’s governing the calculation of regular rates for the purposes of minimum wages. As the payments were made based on miles driven, and thus, hours worked, the payments were correctly included in the regular rate calculation, even though the primary effect of the payments were to cause participating drivers to take home more pay due to the non-payment of taxes on the payments. The Court concluded that “per diem payments that vary with the amount of work performed are part of the regular rate.”
So, what does this mean? Well, an employer who has an “accountable plan” for the payment of mileage reimbursement may be able to include that payment as “wages” for establishing the “regular rate” under the FLSA for purposes of meeting minimum wage. However – you can’t have your cake and eat it too. More often an employer argues that per diem is not part of the regular rate (as that increases overtime). Accordingly, employers should be careful that if per diem payments under an accountable plan are tied to hours worked, they may indeed be included in the regular rate for purposes of overtime. Finally, the Court noted such an analysis should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and look at factors such as whether the payments were unrestricted (employees need not report expenses or provide receipts and could spend the money as they liked) and the purpose and intent of the payments.