The City of Eaton, Ohio has settled a lawsuit filed by four current and former fire department employees for a total of $185,000. The lawsuit, which was filed in 2019 by four of the department’s five full-time employees, contained two basic allegations. The first allegation was that the city misclassified the four full-time fire department employees as overtime exempt executive and/or administrative employees. The second allegation related to unpaid compensation for pre-and-post shift activities.
The city argued the four plaintiffs were overtime exempt executive and/or administrative employees and as a result, were not entitled to any FLSA overtime. Whether any employee can be properly classified as an overtime exempt executive or administrative employee (a.k.a. a white-collar employee) depends on the specific facts. There is a great deal of debate surrounding the applicability of the FLSA’s white-collar exemptions for fire department and other emergency service personnel. Generally speaking, an employee’s primary duty [the employee’s principal main, most important job duty] controls whether they can be properly classified as a white-collar overtime exempt employee. According to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), an employee cannot qualify for any white-collar exemption if his or her primary duty is acting as a first responder. For more on the first responder regulations, click here.
As expected, the city argued that all four fire department employees’ primary duty was not acting as first responders. According to court documents, the fire department has five full-time employees [four of which were plaintiffs in the lawsuit]. Three of these four, are or were fire captains. Each captain is assigned to each 24-hour platoon. The captain runs the platoon in the chief’s absence. However, each captain was also assigned as the first due company officer for the city’s lone fully staffed engine company. This fully staffed engine company ran with three part-time or volunteer firefighters and the full-time captain assigned to that shift.
The city argued the captains’—which the city also referred to as “battalion commanders” in some court filings—primary duty was managerial and not acting as first responders. To bolster these contentions, the city offered the following passage from the plaintiffs’ job descriptions. Fire captains “must . . . demonstrate supervisory and command experience” and “an ability to perform under strenuous and stressful conditions at emergency incidents and under the constant stress of managerial responsibility.” According to the DOL, an employee’s job title and/or description has little to know bearing on his or her overtime rights. If the employee’s primary duty is acting as first responder, they are eligible for overtime regardless of their “rank or pay level.”
The fourth and final plaintiff was an EMS Lieutenant that also worked for the city’s fire department. The department also classified her as an overtime exempt executive. According to court documents, the EMS lieutenant was assigned to 12-hour work shifts on an ambulance and did not receive any FLSA overtime, despite working well over forty hours a week. The city made many of the same arguments related to her overtime eligibility and job description in seeking to show that her primary duty was also executive and not acting as a first responder.
All four plaintiffs also allege the city failed to pay them for all of their hours worked before and after their assigned work shift. For example, a fire or EMS officer may be required by practice or policy to remain after work for a few minutes to “pass-on” information to the oncoming officer. Similarly, that officer may also arrive early and receive important work-related information from the off-going officer. According to the complaint, the EMS Lieutenant involved in the lawsuit averaged between 30-35 minutes per shift in unpaid pre-and-post shift activities. The FLSA does not contain an exception allowing employers to avoid paying employees for this worktime. In fact, lawsuits alleging unpaid pre-and-post shift activities and off-the-clock work are on the rise.
In the end, the parties opted to settle the lawsuit. According to The Register-Herald, the city will make two payments to the plaintiffs. The first, which will be $100,000 must be made by May 31, 2021. The second payment of $85,000 must be made by March 1, 2022. Additionally, the parties agree that fire captains and lieutenants will be eligible for FLSA overtime moving forward. Court documents detailing how the settlement funds will be disbursed, or whether any of the settlement funds will compensate the plaintiffs for unpaid pre-and-post shift activities have yet to be released.
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