Wage Law Basics for Public Employees

The Fair Labor Standards Act requires covered employers to pay minimum wages and overtime compensation to certain categories of employees. The rights afforded by the FLSA apply to employees in the private sector as well as employees of state and local governments. However, the FLSA contains some unique provisions that apply only to state and local government employers and their employees. This post summarizes some of those provisions. The US Department of Labor is also an excellent resource for information about the FLSA rights of state and local government employees.


The FLSA defines a covered “employer” to include “any person acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer in relation to an employee and includes a public agency[.]” 29 U.S.C. §§ 203(d). It goes on to define “public agency” as “the Government of the United States; the government of a State or political subdivision thereof; any agency of the United States … a State, or a political subdivision of a State; or any interstate governmental agency. 29 U.S.C. §§ 203(x). The FLSA therefore applies to state and local government employers. Notably, the definition of “public agency” does not extend to private companies that engage in activities often performed by public employees, such as government contractors.


The FLSA also makes clear that its rights apply to public agency employees under the law’s “enterprise” coverage provision. 29 U.S.C. § 203(s)(1)(C).


As with private employers, the FLSA generally requires public agency employers to pay all covered nonexempt employees at least the federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 per hour. 29 U.S.C. § 206(a). The FLSA also requires public agency employers to comply with the law’s youth employment standards and recordkeeping requirements. 29 U.S.C. § 206(g) (youth employment standards ) &  29 C.F.R. § 516 (recordkeeping requirements). And as with private employers, the FLSA generally requires public agency employers pay covered nonexempt employees overtime compensation — that is, wages equal to at least one and one-half times the employees’ regular rates of pay for all hours worked over 40 in the workweek. 29 U.S.C. § 207(a).


Unlike private employers, however, public agencies may have the option of offering covered employees a certain amount of “compensatory time” in lieu of paying them cash overtime wages. Compensatory time is paid time off. Under certain circumstances, the FLSA allows state and local government agencies to give nonexempt employees who work overtime hours compensatory time off, instead of cash overtime pay. The amount of compensatory time off the employer gives should correspond to the overtime rate — that is, public employees must receive at least one and one-half hours of paid time off for each overtime hour worked. 29 U.S.C. § 207(o). The FLSA further provides that a public agency must allow employees to use their compensatory time with a “reasonable period” of time after they make a request, unless doing so would “unduly disrupt” the operations of the agency. 29 U.S.C. §§ 207(o)(5). Generally, this means public agencies in normal circumstances should allow employees to use compensatory time on the dates they request.


Much like vacation time voluntarily offered by some employers, compensatory time can accumulate. Importantly, if employees do not use their accumulated compensatory time, under certain circumstances the FLSA requires the public agency employer to pay the employees cash compensation. 29 U.S.C. § 207(o)(3)-(4). The FLSA also places limits on the amount of compensatory time that a public agency may give an employee in lieu of paying cash overtime wages. Law enforcement, fire protection, and emergency response personnel and employees engaged in seasonal activities may accrue up to 480 hours of compensatory time (representing 320 overtime hours worked). 29 U.S.C. § 207(o)(3)(A). All other state and local government employees may accrue up to 240 hours (representing 160 overtime hours worked). Id. Once an employee accrues the maximum amount of unused compensatory time hours — either 480 or 240, as the case may be — the public agency employer must pay that employee cash overtime wages for all additional overtime hours. 29 U.S.C. § 207(o)(3)(A).


At the end of a public agency employee’s employment, she is generally entitled to receive a cash payment for any unused compensatory time. Because rates of pay may vary over the course of employment, the FLSA provides specific instructions for calculating the cash value of unused compensatory time. Specifically, at the time of termination a public agency employee must be paid the higher of (A) the average regular rate during her last three years of employment, or (B) her final regular rate of pay, for any unused accrued compensatory time remaining when the termination occurs. 29 U.S.C. § 207(o)(4).


For certain categories of public agency employees, the calculation of overtime pay may differ from the general requirements of the FLSA. For example:

  • For employees who solely at their option occasionally or sporadically work on a part-time basis for the same public agency in a different capacity than the one in which they are normally employed, the hours worked in the different employment may be excluded by the public agency in calculating hours for which the employee is entitled to overtime compensation. 29 U.S.C. § 207(p)(2) & 29 CFR § 553.30;
  • For employees who at their option with approval of the agency substitute for another during scheduled work hours in the same work capacity, the hours the employee worked as a substitute may be excluded by the public agency in calculating hours for which the employee is entitled to overtime compensation. 29 U.S.C. § 207(p)(3);
  • Employees who meet exemption requirements for Executive, Administrative, Professional or Outside Sales occupations may be exempt from overtime pay. 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1);
  • Hospital or residential care establishments may, with agreement or understanding of employees, adopt a fixed work period of 14 consecutive days and pay overtime after 8 hours in a day or 80 in the work period, whichever is greater. 29 U.S.C. § 207(j);
  • For mass transit employees who spend some time engaged in charter activities, under certain circumstances the employer, in calculating the overtime rate, may exclude the hours the employee was employed in charter activities if (1) the employee’s employment in such activities was pursuant to an agreement or understanding with his employer arrived at before engaging in such employment, and (2) if employment in such activities is not part of such employee’s regular employment. 29 U.S.C. § 207(n)
  • Employees working in separate seasonal amusement or recreational establishments such as swimming pools, parks, etc., may be exempt from overtime pay. 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(3).

Importantly, some states with concurrent wage laws may not recognize or allow some or all of the above exemptions. Because employers must comply with the most stringent of the state or federal provisions, it is imperative that employers review applicable state laws before applying any of these exclusions or exemptions.


The FLSA also provides some special rules for fire protection and law enforcement personnel — public employees whose work schedules traditionally differ from a 40-hour per seven-day workweek.

Under the FLSA, fire protection personnel include firefighters, paramedics, emergency medical technicians, rescue workers, ambulance personnel, or hazardous materials workers who: (1) are trained in fire suppression, have the legal authority and responsibility to engage in fire suppression, and are employed by a fire department of a municipality, county, fire district, or state, and (2) are engaged in the prevention, control, and extinguishment of fires or response to emergency situations where life, property, or the environment is at risk. 29 U.S.C. § 203(y).

Notably, the FLSA does not place a limit on how much nonexempt work a worker employed in fire protection activities may perform. As long as the employee satisfies the criteria in Section 203(y), she is “employed in fire protection activities” as far as the FLSA is concerned.

Under the FLSA, law enforcement personnel are employees who are (1) empowered by state or local ordinance to enforce laws designed to maintain peace and order, protect life and property, and to prevent and detect crimes; (2) who have the power to arrest; and (3) who have undergone training in law enforcement. 29 C.F.R. § 553.211(a).

Law enforcement personnel may perform some nonexempt work that is not performed as an incident to or in conjunction with their law enforcement activities. But a worker who spends more than 20 percent of the workweek or applicable work period in nonexempt activities is not considered to be an “employee engaged in law enforcement activities” for the purposes of the FLSA. 29 C.F.R. § 553.212.

Additionally, fire protection and law enforcement employees may at their own option perform special duty work in fire protection and law enforcement for a separate and independent employer without including the wages and hours in regular rate or overtime determinations for the primary public employer. 29 U.S.C. § 207(p)(1).

For the purposes of calculating overtime worked, the FLSA also allows fire departments and police departments to establish special work periods that differ from the traditional 7-day workweek. Specifically, fire departments or police departments may establish a work period ranging from 7 to 28 days in which overtime need be paid only after a specified number of hours in each work period. 29 U.S.C. § 207(k). In the case of a 28-day work period, fire protection employees are entitled to overtime pay (or compensatory time) for hours worked in excess of 212 hours during the period, while law enforcement personnel are entitled to overtime pay (or compensatory time) for hours worked in excess of 171 hours during the period. 29 C.F.R. § 553.230(a)-(b).

In the case of fire protection or law enforcement employees who have a work period of at least 7 but less than 28 consecutive days, overtime compensation is required when the ratio of the number of hours worked to the number of days in the work period exceeds the ratio of 212 (or 171) hours to 28 days. 29 C.F.R. § § 553.20129 C.F.R. § 553.230 (conversion table for ratios). For fire protection personnel, that ratio works out to 7.57 hours per day (rounded); for law enforcement personnel, that ratio works out to 6.11 hours per day (rounded).  29 C.F.R. § 553.230(c).

The FLSA also provides an overtime exemption for very small fire departments and police departments. Specifically, any employee who in any workweek is employed by an agency employing fewer than 5 employees in fire protection or law enforcement may be exempt from overtime. 29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(20).

This site is intended to provide general information only. The information you obtain at this site is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and attorney Tim Coffield or Coffield PLC. Parts of this site may be considered attorney advertising. If you have questions about any particular issue or problem, you should contact your attorney. Please view the full disclaimer. If you would like to request a consultation with attorney Tim Coffield, you may call 1-434-218-3133 or send an email to info@coffieldlaw.com.

This blog was also published to TimCoffieldAttorney.net.

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The information you obtain at this site is not legal advice, is not intended to be legal advice, and does not create an attorney-client relationship. Parts of this site may be considered attorney advertising. If you have questions about any particular issue or problem, you should contact your attorney. Coffield PLC and attorney Tim Coffield welcome your calls, emails, and contact forms. Contacting Coffield PLC or Tim does not create an attorney-client relationship.