Scheduled Work Hours, Actual Work Hours, Public Safety Dispatchers, and the FLSA

Today’s FLSA Question: I am a public safety dispatcher for a small town. We are scheduled to work five 8-hour shifts per week. Only one dispatcher is on-shift at a time. We are required to be in the dispatch center and ready to work by the start of our assigned shift. We are also required to log into the computer dispatch system, review any open calls, and communicate with the dispatcher we are relieving regarding other pertinent activities. In reality, we need to arrive and begin this process 10-15 minutes prior to our scheduled shift. It is not uncommon for us to stay an additional 5-10 minutes beyond our scheduled shifts wrapping things up. The city has adopted a policy that strictly pays us for our scheduled hours and does not account for this time before and after shifts. Does the FLSA allow the city to avoid paying us for 20 to 25 minutes of work on a daily basis?

Answer: The short answer is no. The FLSA requires employers pay employees for all hours worked. This includes scheduled and unscheduled work time. A city in Missouri recently settled an FLSA lawsuit filed by a small group of civilian police dispatchers whose FLSA claims were very similar to the scenario you describe above.

Deborah Donoho and Cassidy Hodge, two former civilian police dispatchers for the Pacific Police Department filed a lawsuit on behalf of themselves and other similarly situated individuals—which is a very fancy way of saying other current and former Pacific police dispatchers—in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, on February 6, 2019. Here are some relevant portions from their complaint:

  • Defendant [City of Pacific] required PPD dispatchers, including Plaintiffs, to arrive for their scheduled shifts 10-15 prior to the scheduled start times.
  • During the time prior to the scheduled shift change, dispatchers signed on to their computers and received reports from the outgoing dispatchers regarding, inter alia, calls received during the previous shift, warrants entered during the previous shift, the current status of on-duty police officers, and calls and/or traffic stops in progress.
  • Defendant required outgoing dispatchers to continue working beyond the scheduled end of their shifts to give reports to the incoming dispatcher, complete calls in progress, and when call volume was high.
  • While on duty, dispatchers could not leave the dispatch room unless another dispatcher or a police officer was in the room and able to perform the dispatcher’s duties.
  • PPD dispatchers did not receive scheduled meal breaks and were never completely relieved from duty during their shifts.
  • PPD dispatchers ate meals at their desks in the dispatch room and were required to answer phone calls, communicate with police officers, and perform other job duties during their meals.
  • If a PPD dispatcher required a restroom or other break, he or she had to find an on- duty police officer to work the radio during the break. If no police officer was available, the dispatcher could not take a break or use the restroom.
  • Defendant, through its agents and employees, implemented a common decision, policy, or plan to deny dispatchers overtime compensation for hours worked in excess of forty (40) hours per workweek.
  • Defendant commonly and inaccurately limited the time for which it paid dispatchers to the time dispatchers were scheduled to work.
  • Dispatchers, including Plaintiffs, regularly worked in excess of forty (40) hours per workweek.
  • Defendant’s management instructed that, for payroll purposes, dispatchers’ scheduled time worked, rather than actual time worked, be utilized.
  • Defendant’s management repeatedly told Plaintiffs and other dispatchers not to submit overtime or compensatory time requests for the time dispatchers worked before the scheduled start of their shifts.
  • Defendant’s management repeatedly told Plaintiffs and other dispatchers not to submit overtime or compensatory time requests for the time dispatchers worked before the scheduled start of their shifts.
  • Defendant’s management repeatedly told Plaintiffs and other dispatchers not to submit overtime or compensatory time requests for the time dispatchers worked beyond the scheduled end of their shifts.

On October 16, 2019, Donoho, Hodge, and six other [similarly situated] police dispatchers that chose to opt-in on the lawsuit reached a global settlement with the city. In exchange for dropping all claims of unpaid overtime, the city will pay the eight dispatchers a total of $20,736.80. According to the plaintiffs’ attorneys this represents full payment of the wages the plaintiffs claim to be owed and an equal amount of compensatory damages.

Compensatory damages are standard in FLSA actions. Essentially, compensatory damages are equal to the amount of back wages. For example, in an FLSA lawsuit where an employee proves their employer owes them $1,000 in back wages, the employee actually receives a total of $2,000. One-thousand dollars represents payment for back wages, while the second $1,000 serves as compensatory damages.   

In addition to compensatory damages, the FLSA also typically requires the employer to pay the employee’s legal fees [if the employee proves their claim]. This settlement is not an exception to that general rule. The city also agrees to pay the dispatchers attorneys’ $29,263.20.

It looks like a roughly $10,000 mistake spread across eight dispatchers over the course of several years ballooned into a $50,000 settlement for the city. And this does not include the legal expenses associated with defending the city against the dispatchers’ claims.

Here is a copy of the complaint and settlement.

Do you have FLSA questions? Please consider joining us at one of our upcoming FLSA for Fire Departments seminars.

Georgetown/Austin, TX December 10-12, 2019

Stuart/West Palm Beach, FL February 11-13, 2020

Raymore/Kansas City, MO May 5-7, 2020

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