In most overtime cases under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the courts interpret the exemptions to the law narrowly, in favor of the employees seeking to be paid overtime. However, in a recent overtime collective action case decided by the Eleventh Circuit (the federal appeals court with jurisdiction over the federal district courts of Georgia, Florida and Alabama), the court gave the firefighter exemption a broad interpretation and denied overtime to the plaintiffs. Gonzalez v. City of Deerfield Beach, Florida.
In the case, a group of 12 firefighters/EMTs and emergency rescue supervisors employed by the City of Deerfield Beach, Florida sued the city for unpaid overtime. Although the employees had all been trained in fire suppression, only one of the plaintiffs had actually engaged in putting out fires on the job. Nevertheless, the City argued that the plaintiffs were not entitled to overtime based on the exemption for employees of a “public agency engaged in fire protection or law enforcement activities.” 29 U.S.C. § 207(k).
On the City’s motion for summary judgment, the court examined the question of whether the employees “engaged in fire protection activity.” That term is define under the FLSA to include “a firefighter, paramedic, emergency medical technician, rescue worker, ambulance personnel, or hazardous materials worker who (1) is trained in fire suppression, has the legal authority and responsibility to engage in fire suppression, and is employed by a fire department of a municipality, county, fire district, or State; and (2) is engaged in the prevention, control, and extinguishment of fires or response to emergency situations where life, property, or the environment is at risk.”
Although the plaintiffs argued that this definition did not apply to them because they were not regularly involved in fighting fires, the court concluded, relying on the recent Eleventh Circuit decision In Huff v. DeKalb County, Georgia, that because the plaintiffs were responsible for and required to perform fire suppression, they were in fact engaged in fire protection activity, and the fact that they never actually engaged in fire suppression was irrelevant. Accordingly, the court granted summary judgment for the City.