Public Employers Can Push Comp Time Usage

Article excerpt

To force-or not to force-the use of comp time. That has long been a question for employers.

The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a winning hand to public employers in May when it ruled that states, counties, and cities can force employees to take compensatory time off from work instead of paying them for the extra time worked. In its ruling (6-3), the high court emphasized that there's nothing in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) or in the regulations adopted by the U.S. Labor Department that prohibits a public employer from requiring workers to use their comp time instead of paying them for it.

The ruling in Christensen et al. vs. Harris County came as the resuit of a 1994 lawsuit filed by 120 sheriff's deputies in Harris County, Texas, who alleged that the sheriff's department violated the labor law by forcing them to use accumulated time-off credits when they didn't want to. The FLSA generally requires public and private employers to pay workers time-anda-half for anything over 40 hours a week.

The county alleged that having unlimited comp-time credits on the books was an enormous financial liability. Public safety workers, since 1985, have been able to accumulate as many as 480 hours of time off-but had to be paid for additional overtime after that. The law also guarantees that employees can only accrue amounts of comp time that they can reasonably use. Initially, the Department of Labor had issued an opinion letter taking the position that an employer may only compel the use of comp if the employee has agreed in advance to such a practice.

Justice Clarence Thomas said in the majority opinion that the law was silent about requiring employees to use their comp time: "No relevant statutory provision expressly or implicitly prohibits Harris County from pursuing its policy of forcing employees to utilize their compensatory time. …