Supreme Court Comp Time Ruling A Victory for Local Government
Parnas, Susan M., Nation's Cities Weekly
The U.S. Supreme Court handed a victory to cities nationwide on May 1, in the case of Christensen v. Harris County (No. 98-1167) when it ruled that "nothing in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) prohibits a public employer from compelling the use of compensatory time," in lieu of paying overtime to the employee.
In the Christensen case, employees of the Harris County, Texas Sheriff's Department brought a lawsuit against Harris County seeking to strike down a county policy that permitted the county to require an employee who had accumulated close to the maximum number of compensatory hours permitted, to take steps to reduce the number of compensatory hours.
Harris County implemented this policy for two main reasons. First, it was concerned that the county lacked the resources to pay overtime costs to employees who worked hours in excess of the statutory compensatory time accrual. Second, Harris County was concerned that it lacked the resources to pay employees who left their jobs with sizable reserves of accrued time.
In 1985, the FLSA was amended to permit cities to compensate their employees for overtime by granting them compensatory or "comp" time a rate of 1.5 hours for every hour worked. The federal statute also caps the number of compensatory time hours that an employee may accrue. After the employee reaches the maximum, the payment of overtime is required. Under the 1985 amendments to the FLSA, comp time can be used instead of overtime provided there is an agreement or understanding between the employer and the employee that comp time will be granted instead of cash compensation. It was undisputed at trial that the employees of Harris County individually agreed to accept comp time for overtime.
Seeking clarification on what it could or could not do regarding reducing the accumulated comp time of its employees, Harris County wrote a letter to the Department of Labor (DOL) asking "whether the Sheriff may schedule non-exempt employees to use or take comp time."
The DOL responded to Harris County and stated "a public employer may schedule its nonexempt employees to use their accrued FLSA comp time as directed if the prior agreement specifically provides such a provision . …