Public Safety Employers Need Not Notify Workers About Work Period Exemption From FLSA


Our Naperville wage and hour rights attorneys noted a recent ruling out of Massachusetts that could be important for police officers and firefighters around the United States. In Calvao et al. v. Town of Framingham, No. 09-1648 (1st.Cir. March 17, 2010), the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that employers don’t have to notify their public safety workers when they take advantage of a special provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act that exempts them from the ordinary 40-hour work week. Instead, these employers are permitted to establish “work periods” of seven to 28 days, after which the employees must be paid overtime. The plaintiffs, a class of about 100 Framingham, Mass. police officers, believed that the Town of Framingham was not eligible for this exemption because it never “established” the work period by notifying them of its existence.

The FLSA was amended in 1966 and 1974 to apply to state and municipal workers. This triggered concerns about costs from local governments, which ended partially with Congress enacting the section of law at issue in this case, which allows a longer period before overtime is triggered, to account for the unpredictable nature of public safety work. The Town of Framingham circulated a memo in 1986 declaring that the work period for police and fire personnel was 24 days. This worked out to about 43 hours in a seven-day period before overtime was triggered. Fourteen years later, in 2000, the police officers’ union negotiated a change in schedule from four days on and two off to five days on and three off. Both fit into the 24-day schedule. In 2005, the officers brought the instant action, suing for a declaratory judgment that they had been denied overtime because the work period had never been “established” as required by federal law. The trial court granted partial summary judgment to the defendants on this issue, and the officers appealed.

They had no better luck at the First Circuit, which found no evidence for their argument in the text of the statute, its legislative history or Department of Labor guidelines. The text of the law at issue does not require notice, the court wrote, or even suggest how an employer might establish its work period. The statute doesn’t explicitly prohibit giving notice, but Congress did explicitly give responsibility for enforcing FLSA regulations to the Secretary of Labor. Regulations enacted by people in that role “make it clear the Secretary rejected a notice requirement,” the court wrote. In fact, the Secretary in office at the time reviewed and rejected a proposed notice requirement, noting that the Act does not require one. In addition, legislative history shows that Congress expressly rejected a proposal to require employee agreement before the work period could be established.

Finally, the court rejected the officers’ argument that a Department of Labor letter ruling mandates a notice requirement. The issue was never brought up in district court and would be waved in any case, it wrote, but is also inappropriate for three reasons. One is that the letter never mentioned a notice requirement, instead saying that “”[a]n employer must designate or otherwise objectively establish the work period . . . and pay the affected employees in accordance with its provisions.” The letter was also responding to a specific court case raising issues not relevant in the instant action. And opinion letters don’t have the force of rulings, the court said, especially since the Secretary of Labor has already reached the opposite conclusion from the one the officers sought here. Thus, the summary judgment ruling by the district court was affirmed.

Lubin Austermuehle represents public and private employees who are seeking to enforce their rights under state and federal wage and hour laws. “Wage theft” by employers who decline to pay for all time worked, or overtime for time over the legal limit, is a growing problem in the U.S. labor market. Employers that want to save money may routinely misclassify employees as exempt from overtime, automatically deduct time from employees’ timesheets or perform other semi-legal maneuvers. If it has the effect of denying employees fair payment for the time they worked, it is not a legal practice and should not be tolerated. Our Chicago overtime rights lawyers help individual workers or groups sue their current or former employers for all of their unpaid wages, as well as compensation for any other wrongdoing.

If you believe you were denied fair wages for all of the time you worked, you should speak to an Illinois employee rights attorney at Lubin Austermuehle right away. To set up a free consultation, please call us today at 630-333-0333 or contact us online.

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