National Fire Academy Training and the FLSA

Today’s FLSA Question: I am the fire chief of a full-time paid municipal fire department. Several of our firefighters and officers have been voluntarily attending on-campus classes in several different programs offered through the National Fire Academy (NFA). As a policy, the department provides these members with paid time off (without using vacation time or requiring shift trades) for all assigned twenty-four hour shifts for the duration of the class. However, a question was recently raised about whether the FLSA requires compensation for all the time spent traveling to and from the class, the hours spent in class, and even study time during evening hours. Does the FLSA require we pay our firefighters for all of the time they spend attending, studying, and traveling to classes at the NFA?

Answer: This is a very good and a very important question. As a past participant in classes offered at the National Fire Academy (NFA), I can personally attest to this invaluable resource available to our nation’s firefighters (and others). Based upon the facts that you provided, the FLSA does not require that you compensate your personnel for all the time spent in class, traveling, or even studying, while attending NFA on-campus classes.

With that stated, there are a great deal of potential issues and sub-issues contained in your question. Change any of the facts that you provided, and you may get a different result. The rules surrounding the compensability of training, travel, and study time are complex and cannot be fully addressed in a simple blog post. However, let’s take a look into some basic principles, relevant regulations, and the importance of several facts within your question to develop a better understanding of this topic.

The FLSA requires employers pay employees for all hours worked. This makes sense. You work, you get paid. Unfortunately, the FLSA does not define the term “work.” This has led many of us to struggle with how to apply this basic concept to real-world employment relationships. Courts and the Department of Labor (DOL) predominantly look to the purpose of the employee’s time as the basis for compensation. More specifically, if the time spent by the employee is “primarily for the benefit of the employer,” it is compensable work time.

As a general rule, work-related training benefits the employer and is often considered compensable work time. However, as with almost all of general rules related to the FLSA and DOL regulations, there are exceptions. Your question contains two key factors worth noting. First, the fire department provides paid time off for firefighters that attend classes at the NFA during their normally scheduled work hours. Second, firefighters’ attendance at the NFA is strictly voluntary.

These two factors are critical. Training that occurs during an employee’s normal work hours is always compensable. Additionally, training that is required by the employer is almost always compensable (subject to a couple of very narrow exceptions). Department of Labor (DOL) regulations found at 29 CFR §785.30 entitled Independent Training carves out a very unique exception to the general rule and gives us with some guidance based on the facts you provided. Here is the full text of that regulation:

§ 785.30 Independent training.

Of course, if an employee on his own initiative attends an independent school, college or independent trade school after hours, the time is not hours worked for his employer even if the courses are related to his job.

Now, let’s apply your facts to this regulation. First, the fire department doesn’t require personnel attend the NFA. They do so on their own initiative. Second, the fire department is paying the firefighters for their normally scheduled 24-hour shifts for the time spent while attending the fire academy. Therefore, the time spent during much of the training occurs after hours. These two factors are crucial in being able to utilize this exception.

Notwithstanding state law or collective bargaining requirements, given the facts you provided, there is no need to compensate your firefighters for all the time spent attending classes at the NFA. Additionally, since the training time doesn’t need to be compensated, there is no need to address the travel or study time components of your question.

Do you have questions about training, travel, and study time? If yes, please consider attending one of our FLSA for Fire Departments live webinars. The next one is less than a week away.

FLSA for Fire Departments Live Webinar Oct. 5-8, 2021

FLSA for Fire Departments Live Webinar Feb. 8-11, 2022

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