Repayment of Training Costs and the FLSA

Today’s FLSA question. . . Same question. . . Two sides. . .

I am a rookie firefighter. I just completed recruit school last week. I was paid minimum wage for 14-weeks while in the academy. I am set to begin on my first shift tomorrow. I don’t think this was a good choice for me and I just found out that I can get my old job back. However, the fire department required me to sign an “agreement” on the first day of training. In part, the agreement states if I leave the job in the next 4-years, I have to re-pay my training costs. . . Doesn’t the FLSA require the fire department to pay me at least the minimum wage? Can they even enforce this?

I am a finance director for a small town with a small paid fire department. We have 3 large suburban fire departments within a 45-minute drive of our town. Over the past several years our fire department has become a training ground for these three fire departments. We are losing one in three new hires to larger departments. We can’t control overtime, training, or recruiting costs. We recently boosted firefighter pay significantly in exchange for an agreement that requires firefighters repay training costs if they leave within 4-years. Additionally, firefighters are only paid minimum wage for hours worked while in the training academy. This has helped, but now the city attorney informed me that we may not be able to collect any money from a recruit that is leaving before working a single shift! What can I do about this?

This is not an uncommon problem. The FLSA mandates employees be paid at least minimum wage and receive overtime when required. Any agreement between an employee and employer that violates the FLSA would most likely be found unenforceable. Even when the agreement was negotiated between union and management. Given the above facts, there are limited options available to recoup this firefighter’s training costs.

In this case, the firefighter was only paid minimum wage for the entirety of his employment. The FLSA would require the final paycheck (presumably minimum wage for the final work period of employment) be paid in full. In the event a firefighter earns more than minimum wage, nothing in the FLSA prevents the fire department “docking” the firefighters’ final wages for the difference between minimum wage and the higher pay rate. That could allow the fire department to “recoup” some of the reimbursement.

The FLSA does not require employers to provide vacation, sick days, and/or personal days. If the department has a policy of paying out that accumulated leave when an employee terminates employment, the FLSA would not prohibit the employer from keeping those funds as partial or full satisfaction of the debt. It is important to note that there could be state or local laws that prevent this method of repayment, but nothing in the FLSA prevents it.

While the FLSA may prevent the fire department withholding wages to satisfy the agreement, there may be other ways for a fire department to enforce this agreement in civil court. If the agreement was properly executed there is nothing that prevents an employer from pursing a separate civil action against the former employee. While this may not be the easiest method of collecting a debt, it may be the only option available to an employer.

This is one of many topics discussed at all our upcoming Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) for Fire Departments seminars. Please consider joining us.

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