A former Indiana firefighter and fire chief is suing his former employer for allegedly violating the FLSA. Ernie Campbell, a former firefighter and the one-time Fire Chief of the Center Township Fire Department, in LaPorte, Indiana filed the suit on December 10. Campbell—an employee of Center Township Fire Department from 1989 to 2018—makes two basic claims in his complaint.
- The department significantly restricted Campbell’s ability to utilize accrued compensatory time (comp time) in violation of the FLSA.
- The department terminated Campbell after he sought payment for accrued FLSA comp time.
The alleged facts are actually quite straightforward. (Which is a rarity in this type of complaint.) Campbell claims he made a request to utilize accrued comp time in early July 2018, however, the department unreasonably restricted his ability to utilize that paid time off. As a result, Campbell requested to be paid-out for all of his accrued comp time, which at that time was in excess of 330 hours. In response, Campbell claims the fire department terminated his employment on or about July 31, 2018.
Department of Labor (DOL) regulations require employers honor an employee’s request to utilize accrued FLSA comp time if two conditions are met. First, the request must be made within a reasonable period and second, granting the request will not unduly disrupt the agency’s operations. As you can imagine, employers and employees rarely agree as to what may unduly disrupt fire department operations. Department of Labor regulations found at 29 CFR §553.25(d) provide more insight on this topic:
Unduly disrupt. When an employer receives a request for compensatory time off, it shall be honored unless to do so would be “unduly disruptive” to the agency’s operations. Mere inconvenience to the employer is an insufficient basis for denial of a request for compensatory time off. For an agency to turn down a request from an employee for compensatory time off requires that it should reasonably and in good faith anticipate that it would impose an unreasonable burden on the agency’s ability to provide services of acceptable quality and quantity for the public during the time requested without the use of the employee’s services.
While allegations regarding comp time usage may be Campbell’s first claim, it may not prove to be the most costly. The FLSA contains a strong anti-retaliation provision. In fact, section 15(a)(3) of the FLSA states that it is a violation for any person to “discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to this Act, or has testified or is about to testify in any such proceeding, or has served or is about to serve on an industry committee.” Most courts extend this protection to include internal complaints made by employees for alleged violations of the FLSA.
Finally, an employee does not have to be successful in his or her FLSA claims, in order for the employer to be held liable for retaliation claims. For example, an employee could lose a claim for back wages yet still recover significant damages for retaliation. Employees need to approach claims for unpaid overtime or other alleged FLSA violations cautiously.
Campbell is seeking reinstatement to his former position, all lost wages and benefits, liquidated, compensatory, and punitive damages as a result of the department’s alleged actions in addition legal fees associated with his claims. Here is a copy of the complaint.