Should battalion chiefs be eligible for FLSA overtime? That is precisely the question a federal court in Washington State will be answering in the coming months. This case is one of many pending lawsuits that we are following regarding shift commanders and overtime eligibility. This particular case began in May of 2017, when eight current and former Vancouver, Washington, battalion chiefs filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington seeking overtime pay. The city classifies battalion chiefs as overtime exempt executives. Here is more on that story from Curt Varone’s Fire Law Blog.
Last week, District Court Judge, Ronald B. Leighton denied the city’s request to have the battalion chief’s case dismissed. It is common in FLSA lawsuits for both sides to petition the court early in the litigation process seeking to have the case decided absent a trial. In some FLSA actions, the entire suit can be resolved this way.
Here, the key in determining if battalion chiefs are eligible for overtime will be whether their primary duty is acting as first responders. In a nutshell, first responders are eligible for FLSA overtime, while managers may not be. As you can imagine, the city and battalion chiefs have differing opinions regarding their primary duty.
Here are the highlights form the recent ruling:
Vancouver argues that the BC plaintiffs spend the “overwhelming majority” of their time on management tasks and emphasizes that they make more than those below them do. It also claims they have clear input into the Department’s hiring, firing and discipline decisions.
The BCs argue that their primary duty is to be first responders to emergency calls, and that that is not an exempt position as a matter of law. They rely on statistical data and analysis to demonstrate that they spend the bulk of their time training and preparing to respond to emergency calls, actually responding to such calls, or documenting and debriefing after them. They claim they do not manage others, and that they are more like the firefighters below them than they are the administrators (like the Division Chiefs) above them. Indeed, they emphasize the Captains below them have more authority to discipline hire and fire than they do.
The parties should not be terribly surprised that the Court cannot determine as a matter of law (on ⁓ 220 pages of briefing—most of it intensely factual—and supported by even more declarations and other evidence) what aspects of the BCs job description and duties takes the most time, whether they meaningfully participate in hiring and firing, and whether they are or managers or first responders. The competing motions demonstrate forcefully that the BCs’ primary duties—the factual basis for the cross motions—is a hotly disputed question of fact requiring a trial.
We will keep you posted as this one develops.
For more details here is a copy of the ruling.