Federal Appeals Courts Split on Overtime Pay for Public Workers

Two federal appeals courts, one in Los Angeles and the other in Washington, D.C., have split on whether public workers – and which ones – in safety fields can get overtime pay.

The decisions could affect millions of Fire Fighters, EMTs, police and other state and local public safety workers, as well as, in the D.C. decision, air traffic controllers.

In the Los Angeles case, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said on March 18 that L.A. Fire Department dispatchers and aeromedical technicians – represented by L.A. Fire Fighter locals – are not front-line fire fighters.  That means dispatchers, techs and other non-front-line workers are eligible for overtime pay after working more than 40 hours a week each.

But in D.C., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled on March 21 that air traffic controllers and traffic management coordinators are barred as a class from getting overtime pay, regardless of their weekly hours.  The court said their employer, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), “has particular authority” under federal personnel laws to determine which of them qualify for overtime pay and which don’t.

The D.C. court didn’t give the government a total win, though.  The judges ordered the FAA to go back to the lower court, citing other sections of federal worker law that would deny the workers their overtime pay, if it can find them.

The two rulings show the importance of federal courts, particularly appeals courts, to workers.  The L.A. Fire Department workers won by, among other things, relying on a prior U.S. appeals court decision in a similar case involving Cleveland fire department workers.

Los Angeles argued that the dispatchers and the medical techs are both groups of workers “engaged in fire protection” and that the techs, when they get to fire scenes to treat the injured, “have a responsibility to engage in fire suppression.”  Those two groups of workers do not get overtime pay under the normal more-than-40-hours-per-week federal law.

The 9th Circuit judges, citing the Cleveland case, said Los Angeles was wrong.  “Like dispatchers, aeromedical technicians do not ‘engage in fire suppression,’” the judges said.

“Helicopter support operations mainly consist of medical duties, with the air ambulance substituting for a road ambulance.  Other duties include setting up equipment, loading hoses and fittings onto helicopters, filling the helicopters with water, establishing secure landing sites, and evacuating people. These technicians do none of the activities normally associated with suppressing a fire.

“Similar to the paramedics in Cleveland, aeromedical technicians are not required to wear full fire protective gear, regardless of the particular air ambulance helicopter assignment.

Even when an air ambulance is called on to drop water on a fire, aeromedical technicians never go with the helicopter.  And although aeromedical technicians perform more duties than road ambulance paramedics, these duties are limited to support activities, not fire suppression,” the judges said.

“For these reasons, dispatchers and aeromedical technicians do not ‘engage in fire suppression’ and thus should not be denied standard overtime pay,” they concluded.

In the D.C. case, the court said federal law covering U.S. workers, which differs from other worker laws, gives the FAA the right to decide which of its workers – including which air traffic controllers – are eligible for overtime pay and which aren’t.

Responding to a 1996 law governing federal workers, the FAA said it could pay the controllers, if they worked overtime, in comp time, of up to 160 hours yearly, not cash.  In the case the appeals court took, the controllers sued after the FAA imposed a use-it-lose-it comp time rule in 2007.  They said that violates the Fair Labor Standards Act, which governs overtime.  The controllers won in a lower court and lost in the appeals court.

The judges said the 1996 law “authorized the FAA to create a personnel management system that ‘provided for greater flexibility’ in compensation of personnel, and…authorized the FAA to set compensation and benefit guidelines for employees without being ‘bound by any requirement to establish such compensation or benefits at particular levels.’”

“In short, it is reasonable to read” the 1996 law “as leaving in place the provisions of” federal worker law “that authorize the FAA to depart from the otherwise-applicable commands of” the Fair Labor Standards Act, the judges said.

“Given that conclusion, the validity of the challenged FAA policies on compensatory time and credit hours in lieu of FLSA overtime pay turns on whether those policies are within” the bounds of federal worker pay laws.  The lower “Court of Federal Claims did not resolve that issue, and oral argument in this court confirms the issue warrants further exploration,” the appeals court judges said.  So they sent the case back down for a rerun in the lower court.

Officials of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents the nation’s 14,000 controllers, were tied up in a large union-wide air safety conference and unable to immediately comment.  NATCA did not issue a comment when the ruling occurred.