Engaged to Wait or Waiting to Be Engaged: When On-Call Hours Are (and Aren’t) Compensable

A recent minimum wage case from Massachusetts is a reminder that just because an employee is not actively engaged in conducting the employer’s business — or maybe even is asleep — that doesn’t mean those hours aren’t compensable time. Hours spent on-call or waiting to work may or may not be compensable time under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The analysis depends on the totality of the circumstances and, as the courts have put it, were the employees “engaged to wait” or waiting to be engaged? Whether or not you’re an employer or an employee, understanding what time is compensable (and what isn’t) is crucial. An experienced Atlanta wage and hour lawyer can help you make those assessments and take the appropriate next steps.

The case from the Massachusetts federal court involved long-haul truck drivers. Federal regulations demand that truck drivers spend 10 hours of every 24 off duty, but other regulations say that employers when determining compensation, can deduct a maximum of eight hours of every 24 as a sleeping period. The drivers’ minimum wage lawsuit contended that they should be entitled to compensation for 16 hours, not 14.

The court sided with the employees. Given that the drivers spent the hours in dispute in a moving semi-truck (a confined space “that is ill-equipped for many activities,” “containing only some basic living essentials,” and that drivers cannot leave until the truck stops moving,) the court concluded that the time was not truly the drivers’ own but instead spent predominantly for the benefit of the employer, making it compensable.

Closer to home, federal courts have weighed in on a similar issue — on-call employees. The key to determining whether or not the employees’ time was compensable in these cases — just as in the truckers’ case — boiled down to whether the employees were spending that time primarily engaged in activities that benefitted their employers or for their own benefit.

In 1992, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a city was not required to compensate its police detectives for their on-call time. Being on-call required the detectives to stay in town, refrain from consuming alcohol, and be immediately accessible by telephone or beeper. The court said that the restrictions did not restrict the detectives so severely that the time was not truly their own, noting that several detectives worked second jobs during their on-call hours.

More recently, a federal district court in Alabama ruled against on-call firefighters. The firefighters worked 24-hour shifts, then spent the next 24 hours on call. When on call, firefighters were to report to the station house within 15 minutes after a dispatch call and to refrain from drinking alcohol.

The district court, following the 1992 appellate decision, said in 2004 that the employer’s policies did not so severely restrict the firefighters’ freedom to engage in personal activities that the employees’ time was not their own. As the court noted, they were “able to spend time with family, watch television, sleep, exercise, go shopping, work outside their homes, and engage in a variety of other activities.”

Typically, on-call time isn’t compensable if the worker can use those hours for his/her own purposes. Depending on the restrictions involved, though, it may become compensable. These analyses can be complex, so it pays to have knowledgeable legal counsel. The experienced Atlanta wage and hour attorneys at the law firm of Parks, Chesin & Walbert are dedicated to each client, with an entire team of lawyers giving each case the detail-oriented attention it deserves. Contact us today at 404-873-8048 or through this website to schedule a consultation.

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