Wage Law for Fire Protection and Law Enforcement Personnel

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 covered employees of public agencies, including most employees working fire protection or law enforcement jobs for state or local governments. However, the FLSA contains some unique provisions that apply only to fire protection and law enforcement personnel. 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.

CHARACTERISTICS OF FIRE PROTECTIONS AND LAW ENFORCEMENT PERSONNEL

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 those wages and hours in regular rate or overtime determinations for the primary public employer. 29 U.S.C. § 207(p)(1).

COMPENSATORY TIME IN LIEU OF CASH OVERTIME

Like other employees of other public agencies, firefighters and police officers may receive a certain amount of “compensatory time” in lieu of cash overtime wages. Compensatory time is paid time off. Under certain circumstances, the FLSA allows public fire departments and police departments 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, firefighters and police officers 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 fire departments and police departments, like other public agencies, 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 fire departments and police departments in normal circumstances should allow employees to use compensatory time on the dates they request.

SPECIAL LIMITS ON ACCRUED COMPENSATORY TIME FOR FIREFIGHTERS AND POLICE

Compensatory time can accumulate, similar to vacation time. Importantly, as with other public employees, if firefighters and police officers do not use their accumulated compensatory time, under certain circumstances the FLSA entitles them to receive cash compensation. 29 U.S.C. § 207(o)(3)-(4). The FLSA also places special limits, different from the limits for other public employees, on the amount of compensatory time that fire protection and law enforcement personnel may receive in lieu of cash overtime wages. Law enforcement, fire protection, and emergency response personnel and employees engaged in seasonal activities may accrue up to 480 hours of comp time (representing 320 overtime hours worked). 29 U.S.C. § 207(o)(3)(A). This is different from other public employees, who may accrue up to 240 hours of compensatory time (representing 160 hours of overtime worked). Once a fire protection or law enforcement employee accrues the maximum amount of unused compensatory time hours — 480 — she must be paid cash overtime wages for all additional overtime hours. 29 U.S.C. § 207(o)(3)(A).

Significantly, the Supreme Court has held that the Fair Labor Standards Act does not prohibit public employers from compelling employees to use compensatory time. Christensen v. Harris County, 529 U.S. 576 (2000).

SPECIAL OVERTIME CALCULATION RULES FOR FIREFIGHTERS AND POLICE

The FLSA provides that covered nonexempt employees in most lines of work are entitled to overtime pay (or compensatory time in lieu of overtime pay) for all hours worked in excess of 40 in a 7-day workweek. That is not necessarily the case for firefighters and police officers. Because the work schedules of firefighters and police officers traditionally differ from a standard 40-hour per seven-day workweek, the FLSA provides some special rules for calculating overtime compensation (or compensatory time) for fire protection and law enforcement personnel.

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).

MAXIMUM HOURS BY WORK PERIOD FOR FIRE PROTECTION AND LAW ENFORCEMENT PERSONNEL 

Here is a copy of the maximum hours conversion table, showing the amount of hours fire protection or law enforcement may work during a work period, depending on the length of the work period, above which overtime pay or compensatory time is required:

Work Period (Days) Maximum Hour Standards:
Fire Protection
Maximum Hour Standards:
Law Enforcement
28 212 171
27 204 165
26 197 159
25 189 153
24 182 147
23 174 141
22 167 134
21 159 128
20 151 122
19 144 116
18 136 110
17 129 104
16 121 98
15 114 92
14 106 86
13 98 79
12 91 73
11 83 67
10 76 61
9 68 55
8 61 49
7 53 43

29 C.F.R. § 553.230.

PAYMENT OF ACCRUED COMPENSATORY TIME AT TERMINATION

At the end of a fire protection or law enforcement 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, like other public agency employees, at the time of termination, a fire protection or law enforcement 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).

EXEMPTION FOR SMALL FIRE AND POLICE DEPARTMENTS

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).

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