Congress Moves to Allow Federal Firefighters the Ability to Swap Shifts

Firefighters substituting for each other’s work shifts is common in today’s fire service. Most fire departments allow firefighters, and in some instances, other departmental employees the ability to freely substitute work shifts with each other. There are several reasons why so many fire departments allow personnel to substitute for each other. First and foremost is monetary. The FLSA and Department of Labor (DOL) regulations allow firefighters to substitute with each other without triggering additional overtime pay requirements for the fire department.

Firefighters most frequently substitute shifts when they have personal obligations that interfere with working their assigned shift. By utilizing a shift substitution, the fire department doesn’t have to pay costly overtime pay to a replacement firefighter. Additionally, utilizing shift substitutions is very popular among the rank-and-file. Shift substitutions provide firefighters with a great deal of flexibility. The typical firefighter’s schedule is set far in advance and doesn’t recognize the importance of holidays, weekends, and school vacations. Allowing individual firefighters, the flexibility to modify their schedule around important events without triggering the need to utilize accrued time off can improve morale and productivity.

However, not all fire departments can allow firefighters the ability to substitute shifts without triggering overtime pay. The special rules related to shift substitutions are limited to public agency fire departments. Private fire departments cannot avoid potential overtime costs associated with allowing firefighters to substitute shifts with each other. As a result, most private organizations do not allow shift substitutions. However, it may come as a surprise to learn the FLSA and DOL substitution rules are also not applicable to federal firefighters either.

Federal firefighters follow a slightly different set of overtime rules as compared with their state and municipal counterparts. While federal employers must still follow the basic rules found in the FLSA, the DOL does not administer the FLSA for the federal sector. Historically the FLSA did not apply to federal, state, or local employees. In 1974, Congress amended the FLSA to include federal employees, including federal firefighters. In making this change, Congress authorized the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) the task of administrating the FLSA to the federal sector. The OPM administers the FLSA to federal employees in the same way the Department of Labor (DOL) administers the FLSA for other private and public sector employees.

Under the federal sector rules, if one firefighter substitutes for another, the additional hours worked by the substituting firefighter count towards that firefighter’s hours worked for the work period and his or her overtime eligibility. Additionally, the firefighter receiving the substitution could see a reduction in his or her paycheck because of missing work time. As a result, many federal agencies forbid firefighters from substituting for each other’s shifts. For years federal firefighters have sought the ability to substitute work shifts in the same manner public agency firefighters can. It looks like Congress is finally listening.  

Representative Donald Norcross, from New Jersey has introduced a new provision within the National Defense Authorization Act, that includes a provision that would allow federal firefighters the ability to trade shifts just like their public agency counterparts. The new bill, which has support from the White House and numerous other bi-partisan lawmakers has cleared the House Armed Services Committee and will be sent to House floor for consideration [hopefully in the coming weeks]. We will keep an eye out for future developments.

For more on this story from the Government Executive, click here.

For more on shift trades and the FLSA.

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