The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (covering such east coast states as Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland) recently held that a group of fire Captains are entitled to overtime under the FLSA because their primary duty is being a first responder. The case, Morrison v. County of Fairfax, Virginia, was decided June 21, 2016.

In Morrison, over 100 current and former fire Captains sued Fairfax County for denial of overtime pay. The Captains fell into two groups: (1) Shift Commanders and Safety Officers, and (2) Station Commanders and Emergency Medical Service Supervisors (“EMS Supervisors”). The trial court granted summary judgment to the County finding that all of the Captains were exempt executives under the FLSA. In reaching its conclusion, the trial court held that 29 C.F.R. §541.3, the “first responder regulation,” only applied to blue collar workers and did not apply to the Captains. The Fourth Circuit reversed.

The Fourth Circuit’s analysis is based on the first responder regulation in 29 C.F.R. §541.3. This regulation was passed to clarify whether the overtime exemptions for administrative, executive, and other white collar employees found in 29 C.F.R. §541 (the “white collar exemptions”) would apply to first responders and manual laborers. 29 C.F.R. §541.3(b)(1) provides that the white collar exemptions “do not apply to … fire fighters … regardless of rank or pay level, who perform work such as preventing, controlling or extinguishing fires of any type; rescuing fire, crime or accident victims … or other similar work.” Section (b)(2) goes on to explain that “[s]uch employees do not qualify as exempt executive employees because their primary duty is not management of the enterprise in which the employee is employed. Thus, for example, a … fire fighter whose primary duty is to … fight fires is not exempt … merely because the… fire fighter also directs the work of other employees in … fighting a fire” (emphasis added). The Fourth Circuit determined that under this regulation, whether the Captains are exempt employees depends upon whether their primary duty is management or administrative work directly related to management. Four factors are considered in determining whether exempt duties comprise the primary duty of an employee:

  1. The importance of the exempt duties compared to other duties;
  2. Amount of time spent performing exempt work;
  3. Amount of freedom from direct supervision; and
  4. Comparison of the employee’s salary and with wages paid to other employees for non-exempt work.

In Morrision, the Fourth Circuit found that the evidence failed to show that the Captains’ primary duty was management-related. Rather, the Court found that the Captains’ primary job duty was responding to emergency calls. The Captains lacked discretion to refuse to respond to emergency calls, which take priority over all other aspects of their job. The Captains respond to every emergency call that comes in during their shift and is assigned to their engine. “[A]n engine cannot leave the station without its Captain on board.” At the scene, Station and Shift Commanders work side-by-side with subordinates to fight fires and rescue victims. EMS Supervisors and Safety Officers also have no discretion to refuse to respond to calls and are responsible for transporting equipment and rendering emergency care at the scene.

Like most firefighters, the Captains only spend a small amount of their time actually fighting fires. Most of their time goes to training for their responder duties and physical fitness training. The Court, however, rejected the County’s argument that the Captains were exempt because they spent only a small portion of their time actually responding to emergency calls. It did so for three reasons. First, the nature of first-responder work is to wait for an emergency, not only to respond to emergency calls. Thus, the significant time spent waiting cannot be ignored. Second, the regulation focuses not on the time spent doing non-exempt work, but on the time spent performing exempt work. Just because a Captain only spends a small amount of time actually engaged in first responder work does not mean that he or she is spending that remaining time engaged in exempt work. Third, the Captains’ training, which is the same as all firefighters, is to enable them to perform their first responder work and “underscores the importance of those direct response duties.”

The evidence showed that while the Captains do have some tasks that are distinct from their first-responder duties, such as completing annual evaluations, reporting disciplinary infractions and administering discipline, updating station policies, and creating wish lists of supplies. The Court reasoned, however, that all of these tasks combined take at most 25 hours out of 2600 hours of work per year. The Captains also have no responsibility for setting or controlling the budget, hiring/firing employees, setting staffing levels, changing work schedules, or approving overtime.

Nor did the evidence show the Captains were free from direct supervision. The Captains’ role was to carry out their supervisors’ orders, and they were in constant contact with their supervisors. Finally, there was no significant pay gap between the Captains and non-exempt Lieutenants just below them in rank.

Application to California Fire Departments:

Morrison is from outside of California and the Ninth Circuit (the federal appellate court covering California), and is not controlling authority in this state. Nevertheless, it provides guidance on how fire departments in California should consider treating their employees under the FLSA. For any exempt firefighters, regardless of their rank or pay, the fire department should evaluate whether the employee’s primary duty is to fight fires or act as first responder, regardless of the amount of hours the employee actually spends engaged in those tasks. In addition, the focus of any inquiry should be the amount of time the employee is engaged in exempt work (such as managerial or other administrative tasks), rather than the amount of time spent being a first responder. If the primary duty is fighting fires or being a first responder, the employee likely will not be exempt under the FLSA.