Voluntary Attendance at Work-Related Conferences and the FLSA

Today’s FLSA Question: I am a fire chief for a small suburban fire department. Our local fire chiefs’ association is hosting a one-day presentation on leadership to be held at a neighboring community’s recreation facility. I am encouraging many of my personnel to attend what I believe will be a very valuable and worthwhile learning opportunity. Additionally, I will reimburse the registration fee for any of my personnel that choose to attend. However, attendance by off-duty personnel is NOT required. One of our firefighters asked if he would be paid overtime attend. I told him that was not financially possible since our overtime budget is already maxed out. In response, he told me that the FLSA requires compensation for any job-related training. Plus, he believes that because the department is paying the registration fee and encouraging attendance, the FLSA requires compensation for this time. Additionally, he is also claiming that we should pay for the time spent traveling to and from the presentation since it is outside of our city. Is he correct? Does the FLSA require pay and travel expenses to attend the presentation?

Answer:  Chief, you have a couple of issues here. First, generally speaking, you do not have to pay off-duty personnel that choose to attend a presentation like you described provided they are doing so at their own initiative, and they do not perform any productive work during the presentation. Second, even if compensation was required, or you opted to pay the firefighters for attending, the FLSA does not automatically require overtime for the time spent attending the presentation. Whether any firefighter is entitled to FLSA overtime depends on the number of hours the firefighter worked in the work period, not whether he or she worked hours above and beyond the normal work schedule. Third, since there is no requirement to compensate off-duty personnel for attendance at the presentation, there is no requirement to pay the time spent traveling to and from the presentation. Finally, offering to reimburse firefighters for the costs associated with the presentation does not impact whether time spent in attendance is compensable work time.  

Despite this, the firefighter raising this question is not totally off-the-mark. The FLSA and Department of Labor (DOL) regulations generally require job-related training be compensated. However, there are several exceptions to this general rule. One such exception can be found at 29 CFR §785.31 and is entitled “Special Situations.” Most likely, this exception allows you to exclude time spent by your firefighters attending the presentation from their compensable work hours for the work period. Here is the text of the regulation:

§ 785.31 Special situations.

There are some special situations where the time spent in attending lectures, training sessions and courses of instruction is not regarded as hours worked. For example, an employer may establish for the benefit of his employees a program of instruction which corresponds to courses offered by independent bona fide institutions of learning. Voluntary attendance by an employee at such courses outside of working hours would not be hours worked even if they are directly related to his job, or paid for by the employer.

The DOL even issued an opinion letter in November 2020 that addresses a situation that is very similar to the facts that you presented. In the letter, the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division was asked whether a nurse must be compensated for time spent traveling and attending a weekend conference that was directly related to her job. The conference occurred on the nurse’s scheduled days off and nurse attended the conference voluntarily and did not perform any productive work for the employer during the conference. The DOL’s Wage and Hour Administrator opined that the time spent attending the conference, given those facts, was not compensable work time based on 29 CFR §785.31. For more on that opinion letter, click here.

Contact  William Maccarone to Discuss The Article