01 Nov When You Travel for Work
Being on travel status for work can be very confusing: what charges are allowed? What receipts should I keep? When do I stop being on travel status? Here are some tips that I hope will make your invoicing much easier to manage, and the finance/procurement officer much happier, which usually means getting paid sooner. My tips are based on my experience with the federal courts and the State Department but they can also be used as a point of reference for other types of travel on business.
Be aware that when traveling for the federal courts you will have to make your own travel arrangements and pay upfront, then get reimbursed. That’s not the case with the State Department or perhaps other agencies, but one thing they all require: save all those receipts and keep very good records of all allowable (i.e., billable) expenses!
When does my travel status begin and end?
You begin your travel status as soon as you leave your home, and it ends the moment you arrive back home. This is important to keep in mind for the applicable per diem as well as any potential overtime. If you leave home at 7:00 a.m., for example, drive 3 hours to get to the courthouse where you’ll be working that day, interpret until 4:00 p.m. and drive back another 3 hours to get home, you have a workday of 12 hours, which means you bill for the full day rate (eight-hours plus one hour for lunch = 9 hours) and 3 hours of overtime. Of course, if you are billing a private client by the hour, you decide whether to bill for the entire 12 hours. That will all depend on the contract you signed beforehand (yes, do have a signed contract!).
If you fly to your destination and getting from your home to your destination city takes more than 9 hours (in federal court a regular workday is nine hours, rather than eight, because we do not charge or get paid for the lunch hour), or getting back home from the time you had to report to work or from the time you leave your hotel takes more than 9 hours, you bill for a full day plus the number of hours exceeding 9. Be reasonable! If you get home 5 minutes past the 9 hours, don’t stack up your invoice with an additional hour of overtime. This is an easy way to lose a client. The people who hired you notice these things.
When you leave home, you can drive or take some form of commercial transportation, depending on how far your job site is from your home. Some interpreters don’t mind driving 5 hours to a job site, others prefer to fly. If you decide to drive, you need to keep close tabs on your mileage. You can bill for the miles to and from your home and the courthouse where you’ll be working and/or hotel where you’ll be staying. The miles are paid at the rate established by GSA and that rate is published at the beginning of every fiscal year (October 1), so you need to check the GSA webpage (www.GSA.gov) for current mileage and other rates (meals, hotel, incidentals) allowed for the particular city where you’ll be working. They are not all the same. Don’t look up “California” and assume all cities will have the same applicable rates.
If you fly, do not try to “save” the government some money by booking the cheapest flight you can find. Federal regulations require that you buy a fully refundable ticket. If you do not, and your assignment gets canceled for any reason, you will NOT get reimbursed for that cheap ticket you bought thinking you were doing a good thing, and you will be stuck with having to pay for it out of your own pocket. The same caveat goes for anything else you require for your travel that could end up being “non-refundable”. Pre-paid non-refundable car rental that is cheaper than the refundable rate? Don’t!
Everything needs to be fully refundable. Funny thing, though. Even if a fully refundable ticket costs $2,000 and flying first class costs $1,000, you are not going to get reimbursed for flying first class on a non-refundable ticket because it was cheaper than the fully refundable ticket. As a matter of fact, you are supposed to fly economy, even if the non-refundable price of a ticket is not “economy” at all. Once you’ve bought your ticket according to regulation, you can upgrade on your own dime if you want to, but do not expect to get reimbursed for that upgrade. And a last word of caution: paying full fare does not mean you get free bags on some airlines, so make sure you keep those receipts if you have to pay extra for baggage. Keep your boarding passes, too, as well as the ticket receipt. Some procurement officers may ask you for those boarding passes, some may not.
Keep all receipts for ground transportation to and from the airport in your home city and your destination city. You can get reimbursed for those, so there’s no need to wake up your wife, husband, or best friend to drive you to the airport at 5:00 a.m.
Where to stay
The hotel rate the government will pay is specific to each city according to the GSA table. Look for hotels that have a “federal government” rate; sometimes called just “government”, or “government/military”. That rate has to coincide with the GSA-published rate. If you get a more expensive room without prior authorization, you will only get reimbursed for the official rate published by GSA. On the other hand, if you get a lower rate that is not “government,” you may end up paying for room taxes for which you may not get reimbursed. There are places where the federal government does not pay taxes to the state government, so hotel taxes are waived. In some states, you may need a special form to have these taxes deducted from your final hotel bill. Texas is one of them, and you are required to hand this form over to the hotel when you check-in so no taxes are added to your bill. But hotel taxes can only be waived if you have a government rate for your room. Check with the hotel or the courthouse personnel about these requirements and possible tax waivers.
The other side of this coin is that there may be some extraordinary event in the city or town where you are going, and there may be no rooms left at the reduced government rate. For example, after a natural disaster, hotels tend to get filled with FEMA personnel. Special federal government rates are limited to a certain number of rooms in each hotel, so they do run out. Any expense that is going to exceed the GSA tables needs to be cleared with the court’s procurement officer, so do not book a more expensive room until you have received authorization in writing.
Make sure you get a paper receipt when you check out (or an emailed receipt you can print.) You will need it for your invoice to the court. Invoice hotel and hotel taxes separately, if you do have to pay taxes.
Some hotels still charge for guest parking. This expense should be listed as part of the lodging expenses, but separate from the room rate and any taxes you have had to pay.
GSA has very specific amounts you can spend on meals. The maximum allowable amounts are broken down by “breakfast”, “lunch” and “dinner,” and there is a maximum allowable for your travel day as well, which will be lower than the amount for the rest of your stay. The basic assumption is that it will not take you all day to travel from your home city to your destination city. If that is not the case, do clear it with your contracting officer because chances are your daily fee on that travel day will also be a full day, rather than a half-day.
Most courts will ask for a meal receipt only if you spend over a certain amount (usually $25), but you will need all your receipts for your final accounting of reimbursable expenses, so always ask for a printed receipt. If you are sharing a meal with other people, ask for a separate check. Try a ziplock bag or an envelope to keep all your receipts together throughout your trip. Invoice meals and tips separately. That goes for any tips you pay: taxi, baggage handler, hotel housekeeping, etc. Invoice them separately.
What if you decide to do some grocery shopping and eat in your hotel room instead of a restaurant? Again, be reasonable! Don’t try to get reimbursed for the chocolate-covered cherries or the bottle of Prosecco. As a matter of fact, if you decide to have some wine with dinner, try to get a separate check for that glass of wine. You will NOT get reimbursed for any alcohol. As to your groceries, add up what can be reasonably considered a meal and use that amount as your lunch or dinner, whichever meal you are having from those groceries. Calculate the sales tax accordingly. Sales taxes on meals do not have to be invoiced separately. Tips do.
If you are not sure which meals you can include in your invoice on your travel day, remember that as long as you are on travel status your meals are reimbursable expenses. Just make sure you keep within the GSA maximum allowable amount each day or get written authorization to exceed that amount.
In the old days, before everyone had a cell phone, incidentals included phone call charges. Nowadays, incidentals could include parking, if you are driving your own car. Be mindful that the amount allowed for incidentals is very low, so check with your client/procurement officer if this is an expense you know you will have to incur, and what will be the best way to include it in your invoice.
Recordkeeping for your tax return
The expense categories I have just listed are generally the only expenses you will be allowed to include in your invoice, and for which you will be fully reimbursed. Beware, however, because courts will pay everything—your interpreting fee and your reimbursable expenses—in one lump sum, so when they send you their 1099 at the end of the tax year it’s all there as “income”. You need to keep your own records to know what part of that money is actual income and what part is reimbursed expenses. The IRS wants you to separate meals from lodging from mileage, so keep track of all those separately. It will make your accountant’s life that much easier!
A final tip
Travelling is always stressful. I’m sure you have read all sorts of advice to reduce travel-day jitters. But here’s one to take care of the fear your suitcase will get lost.
The day I travel, I wear something comfortable enough for a long drive or tight airplane spaces, but also nice enough that if my suitcase does not make it on time for my court assignment, I can still go to work with the clothes I have on. Dark pants, closed shoes, and a jacket over a neutral-color blouse is all it takes. Of course, my laptop and daily meds go in my carry-on (never, ever, send your laptop in the checked suitcase!).
I hope all these little tips help the next time you have to travel for work. Check the comments section, too, as I’m sure a lot of colleagues will have their own tips to add. Happy travels!
Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. She worked as an independent contractor for over 20 years in different states. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a full-time staff interpreter in April 2002. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She is a past president of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org