8th Circuit Denies Kansas City Medics OT Claims

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has found that the City of Kansas City, MO did not violate the FLSA when it adopted a new pay plan for fire department medics and classified existing Fire Medics as employees engaged in fire protection activities (a.k.a. §207(k) firefighters). The lawsuit was filed in 2017 by two different groups of fire department paramedics and EMTs (medics).

The first group of plaintiffs consisted of single role medics. Single-role medics are medics that are not trained in fire suppression. The court referred to KCFD’s single-role medics as Static EMT/Paramedics. These single-role medics claimed the city artificially reduced their regular and overtime rate of pay in violation of the FLSA.

The second group of plaintiffs consisted of dual-role medics. Dual-role medics are medics that are also trained in fire suppression. The court referred to KCFD’s dual-role medics as Fire Medics. The Fire Medics claimed that the city improperly classified them as employees engaged in fire protections activities, also in violation of the FLSA. Let’s look at the two groups claims separately.

Regular Rate Allegations – Single-Role /Static EMT/Paramedics

First, the single-role medics’ claims in this recent lawsuit were actually rooted in changes the city and firefighters’ union agreed to in the aftermath of a previous FLSA lawsuit and eventual court ruling that also involved KCFD single-role medics. In 2014, a federal court found that Kansas City had violated the FLSA by classifying single-role medics as employees engaged in fire protection activities (§207(k)). As a result of this finding, KCFD’s single-role medics were now entitled to FLSA overtime after working only 40 hours in a 7-day workweek. This ruling presented a huge financial challenge for the city. Single-role medics were typically scheduled to work either 48 or 72 hours per week.

In response, the city and firefighters’ union negotiated a new pay plan designed to provide single-role medics with overtime pay as required by the FLSA, while maintaining “budget neutrality” for the city. As a result, the medics’ hourly rates were decreased. However, after factoring in the newly required FLSA overtime, the medics overall pay remained somewhat static despite their lower hourly rate. In May 2017, KCFD paramedic John Zimmerli filed a lawsuit, on behalf of himself and other similar situated EMTs and medics challenging this new pay plan as illegal. More specifically, the lawsuit claimed the city artificially lowered the single-role medics regular and overtime pay rates in violation of the FLSA.

In the end, the district court and eventually the 8th Circuit found for the city. Both courts found that the city properly calculated the medics’ pay rates under the FLSA. Unfortunately for the medics, the court determined that the FLSA did not prohibit Kansas City from negotiating a lower hourly wage for its single-role medics following the 2014 court ruling. According to the court, single-role medics were entitled to overtime pay for all hours worked over forty hours per week [following the 2014 lawsuit], however the medics did not have a guarantee that their pay rates would remain unchanged moving forward.  

Here is more from the decision:

  • Plaintiffs point to no comparable evidence showing that Kansas City does not pay Static EMT/Paramedics on an hourly basis or at an FLSA-compliant overtime rate for hours worked in excess of 40.
  • As noted above, the undisputed evidence demonstrates that once Kansas City applies the 2015 Collective Bargaining Agreement formula to calculate Static EMT/Paramedics’ hourly rates, it actually pays Static EMT/Paramedics on an hourly basis with overtime.
  • The fact that Kansas City uses a mathematical formula to calculate a Static EMT/Paramedic’s hourly rate from a monthly pay scale in the first instance does not, standing alone, convert Kansas City’s payment scheme into one that violates the FLSA.
  • Contrary to Plaintiffs’ assertion otherwise, the method by which Static EMT/Paramedics in this case are actually paid is materially distinguishable from how the employees were actually paid in 149 Madison Avenue.
  • Plaintiffs also argue that the formula used to calculate Static EMT/Paramedics’ hourly rates—a formula agreed upon by Kansas City and Plaintiffs’ union representatives after months of negotiation—does not comport with regulations governing the determination of an employee’s regular rate.
  • Plaintiffs rely on 29 C.F.R. § 778.113, which sets the standards for determining the regular rate of an employee employed solely on a salaried basis.
  • Plaintiffs, however, are paid on an hourly—not a salaried—basis, and thus § 778.113 does not govern the determination of Static EMT/Paramedics’ regular rate.
  • Moreover, the FLSA does not require employers to adhere to a particular formula for determining employees’ compensation so long as the formula ultimately used complies with the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirements
  • Simply put, there is no genuine issue of material fact as to whether Kansas City actually pays Static EMT/Paramedics the hourly rate (which exceeds the minimum wage) calculated using the agreed-upon formula or that it pays overtime for hours worked in excess of 40.
  • This is what the FLSA requires.

§207(k) Allegations – Employees Engaged in Fire Protection Activities – Fire Medics

The second group of plaintiffs participating in this lawsuit consisted of KCFD Fire Medics (dual-role medics). This group of plaintiffs alleged the city misclassified them as employees engaged in fire protection activities. Cross-trained dual-role firefighter/medics can be treated similar to firefighters, for FLSA overtime purposes, provided that they meet specific requirements mandated by the FLSA. Here, Fire Medic Matthew Dietrick filed the lawsuit on behalf of himself, and other similarly situated medics. Dietrick argued that he and other Fire Medics should receive overtime similar to single-role medics and not the city’s firefighters.

Whether an EMT, paramedic, firefighter, or even a dispatcher can qualify for the §207(k) partial overtime exemption depends on whether they meet the definition of an employee engaged in fire protection activities. To be properly classified as an employee engaged in fire protection activities, the employee must be:

  1. Employed by a public fire department;
  2. Trained in fire suppression;
  3. Have the legal authority and responsibility to engage in fire suppression; and
  4. Be engaged in the prevention, control, and extinguishment of fires or response to emergency situations.

All four of the above requirements must be satisfied to meet the definition. For more on the FLSA’s §207(k) partial overtime exemption for medics and firefighters, click here.

Here, Dietrick argued that he and other KCFD Fire Medics did not have a “responsibility to engage in fire suppression.” The court undertook a fact sensitive inquiry to determine if KCFD’s Fire Medics had the requisite responsibility to engage in fire suppression. The district court found (and the 8th Circuit affirmed) that KCFD Fire Medics did have the responsibility to engage in fire protection activities as contemplated by the FLSA. As a result of this finding, the city did not misclassify the medics.

The courts’ primary objective was to examine the dual-role medics job duties and responsibilities on the fireground. In this case, the court found KCFD’s Fire Medics duties were “integral to fire suppression” and therefore according to the court, they were properly classified as employees engaged in fire protection activities. Here are some excerpts from the decision:

  • Kansas City has carried its burden to demonstrate that Fire Medics have the responsibility to engage in fire suppression.
  • The analysis is fact intensive, and there is no dispute that Fire Medics receive advanced firefighter training and are fully cross-trained firefighter/paramedics.
  • Even when assigned to ambulances and relegated to fire combat support roles in the “warm zone,” Fire Medics are expected and asked to perform tasks that amount to engaging in fire suppression, including throwing rescue ladders; providing incident command; deploying, connecting, and straightening fire hoses; and participating in building evacuation.
  • Although the Fire Medics’ responsibilities do not include donning fire protection gear, entering burning buildings, or dousing fires directly, their duties are integral to fire suppression.
  • Here, even assuming we apply the stricter framework adopted by the Third and Ninth Circuits, Fire Medics have the “responsibility to engage in fire suppression” because they have a “real obligation or duty” to assist with it while assigned to ambulances. See 29 U.S.C. § 203(y).
  • As a result, the Fire Medics are partially exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provision under 29 U.S.C. § 207(k).

This is an important ruling for fire departments in the Eighth Circuit that may be looking to classify dual-role paramedics as employees engaged in fire protection activities. The economic advantages from such a classification can be enormous. Also, this decision, along with other previous similar rulings from other jurisdictions, and DOL opinion will be discussed and dissected at length during this week’s FLSA for Fire Departments Live Webinar. If you have questions about the FLSA and how it applies to single and/or dual-role medics, please consider joining us.

For more on the Live Webinar, click here.

Here is a copy of the Eighth Circuit’s decision.

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