Under limited circumstances, employee training can be unpaid

Posted August 30, 2016

By Ed Zalewski, PHR, editor, J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc.

Employers must pay their employees for all time spent working, which generally includes all time spent under company direction or control. This includes most time spent in training. In fact, training time for an employee must be paid unless all four of the following criteria are met:

  1. The training takes place outside of the employee’s regular working hours.
  2. Attendance is voluntary and the employee understands that there are no consequences for refusing to attend.
  3. The training is not directly related to the employee’s current job.
  4. The employee does not perform any productive work.

Most training is required, such as on-the-job training, and on that basis alone, will have to be paid. Time spent in mandatory training must be paid even if it occurs outside of regular working hours. Remember, if any one of the four criteria is not met, the time must be paid.

For example, an employer might provide self-directed online training, and employees might be able to access the program after normal working hours. However, if they are required to complete the course, their time must be counted as paid working time, even if they complete the course outside of normal working hours. Only a few situations exist in which employees do not have to be paid for time spent in training.

Training for advancement

One possible exclusion is training that will prepare employees for a future position, such as a promotion to a supervisory position. Such time need not be paid even if the training coincidentally improves the employees’ ability to perform their current jobs, and even if the course is offered by the employer. However, all four criteria listed at the start of this article must still be met for the time to be unpaid. Basically, employees may voluntarily choose to attend training outside of normal hours to prepare themselves for advancement.

Independent training

Employees may also voluntarily undertake training or attend education courses at an independent school or college on their own time. For example, an employee might choose to attend a trade school or take college classes. If an employee makes an independent decision to attend such training, the employer does not have to pay for the time, even if the course or education is related to the current job.

Employer education

Employees who voluntarily take educational courses do not have to be paid even if the course is offered by the company. This doesn’t mean that the employer can deny wages for on-the-job training by claiming that it is providing education. Rather, it means that the employer can offer education that is effectively the same as courses offered by learning institutions such as colleges or trade schools.

If the employer provides training or education that corresponds to courses offered by institutions of learning, such as welding classes or truck driver training courses, and its employees voluntarily attend those courses outside of their normal working hours, their time does not have to be paid. Again, this is the case even if the course or education is related to their current jobs.

Apprenticeship training

A company does not have to pay its employees for time spent in an organized apprenticeship program. However, the apprentice-trainee must be employed under a written apprenticeship agreement or program which meets the standards of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training. Also, the apprentice-trainee should not perform productive work or regular job duties during the training.

As these examples show, the situations in which employees may attend training without pay are limited. A common misconception is that employees do not need to be paid if they voluntarily attend training offered by the employer, or if they attend mandatory training after normal working hours. However, unless the situation meets one of the specified exemptions, all four of the listed criteria must be met to exclude the training from paid working hours.

About Ed Zalewski

Ed Zalewski, PHR, is an editor at J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc., a nationally recognized compliance resource company that offers products and services to address the range of responsibilities held by human resources and corporate professionals. Zalewski specializes in employment law issues such as discrimination and harassment, overtime, exemptions, and labor relations. He is the author of three guidance manuals (Employment Law Essentials, Employee Relations Essentials, and Fair Labor Standards Act Essentials). For more information, visit www.jjkeller.com/hr and www.prospera.com.