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Supreme Court Rules that Governments Can Go to the Employees' Bank

May 4, 2000
Last week, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled (6 to 3) that public employers have the right under the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act to compel employees to use earned compensatory time over their objection. The case, Christensen v. Harris County, was brought by 127 county sheriffs who were ordered to use compensatory time because the government was concerned that paying out the earned compensatory time in cash would break its budget.

The Supreme Court's decision addresses an issue of statutory construction and resolves it in a very practical manner, albeit one not to the liking of most employees. In essence, the Court rejected the position advocated by the U.S. Department of Labor that the employer could only compel the use of compensatory time if there was a specific agreement between the employers and the employees to do so.

The Court reasoned that because the Fair Labor Standards Act allowed government employers to (a) compel employees to take a leave of absence when directed and (b) permitted government employers to pay out earned compensatory time in cash, all the employer did in this case was to exercise both rights at the same time: Directing employees to take time off and paying out a corresponding amount of earned compensatory time in cash so that the employees pay would be continued.

In dissent, three justices voiced the view of the Department of Labor that such a result would be appropriate only if the agreement between the employer and the employees contemplated the forced use of earned compensatory time.

The Court's ruling is a bit surprising in that the Court did not defer to the Department of Labor's interpretation of the FLSA. Yet, when taking into account the tremendous pressure placed on government employers to control costs and protect the public purse, the Court's ruling seems to strike a balance between the rights of the employees and the obligations of the employer.

The FLSA provisions allowing for 'comp time' in lieu of overtime pay only apply to government employers. So the Court's ruling does not appear to have much to offer private employers, other than reflecting a rather employer-friendly approach by a majority of the Court.

We host the Workforce Legal Forum and are happy to address issues about compensatory time and employment relations generally.