*Firehouse Legal blog posts provide information only, and are not legal advice. For specific legal advice contact your attorney. No seriously, contact them, they’ll be happy to hear from you.*

So, let’s start with the threshold question: Does the FLSA apply to fire departments? The answer, as most everyone knows at this point, is yes it does. There are many, many workplace rules and laws that fire departments are not subject to, due to specific exemptions, or the fact that the fire service just don’t fit very neatly into standard definitions. In some instances (depending on the jurisdiction) fire chiefs can disregard certain laws almost entirely so long as we aren’t negligent in our actions. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provisions are simply not on the list of things you can ignore. The rules of the fair Labor Standards act specifically apply to fire departments and local government agencies by definition and reference. If you want to take the deep dive, you may reference Section 3 (S)(1)(C) of the Act itself;  also 29CFR Part 553 Sub. A.  Specifically, local government agencies are classified as “employers” and the people who work for them are “employees,” as defined by the FLSA.  In this case, “employer” and “employee” have specific legal meaning and implication, and they are governed by the Act, bringing fire departments and their firefighting employees under the coverage of the FLSA.

Why has the FLSA proven so difficult for us to understand and manage?  The issue comes up time and again in my conversations with the fire service.  Part of the issue is the FLSA addresses a very broad range of topics related to the workplace, but many of which have marginal or no application to the fire service. For example: Classifications of certain employee types–executive v. white collar; rules related to specific industries–teachers, legislative employees, sales, tipped employees, elected officials; and other wage-related issues beyond standard overtime–comp time, minimum wage, etc. This doesn’t even contemplate the potential intersection, conflicts, and layers of applicable state law. When you consider the number of pages dedicated to the statutory law and associated regulations, and then add the ever-growing mountain of case law, I believe this is where the problems tend to originate.

Fire chiefs (and HR personnel) are regularly inundated with information about new wage and hour lawsuits. The problem isn’t the amount of information available to you; it’s what should you do with it. The vast majority of lawsuits related to the FLSA have no application to the fire service. Even cases involving other fire departments may have zero application—none—to your department, if the specific facts and law of that case are distinguishable from your department’s specific circumstances (an issue many HR professionals have a difficult time with). It’s a constant avalanche of information, and you are buried under it with no obvious exit.

I personally believe the starting point is understanding that not every FLSA case will matter to your department, and you shouldn’t dedicate brain bandwidth to very bit of noise you hear. When you are trying to figure out whether the latest FLSA case applies to your department, consider first the portions of the FLSA that matter most to the fire service: Classification of firefighting employees, hours worked for overtime maximums, exempt v. non-exempt issues, application of FLSA to volunteers, and FLSA wage rate; and second, whether the specifics of the case itself are comparable to your situation (Incidentally, these are the topics I will cover in the FLSA Legal Toolkit Series). The question of topic should be fairly easy to discern; the issue of case specifics and application will most likely require some legal assistance, unless the matter is just plainly obvious. If nothing else, this two-step sifting process may help quiet the voices in your head.

Next time: The Firefighting Employee- Exempt v. Non-Exempt, and “Fire Protection Activities.”