Firefighter-Paramedics Lose FLSA Claim In Court

Twelve current and former employees of the City of Deerfield Beach, Florida Fire Department brought a Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) lawsuit against the City. Each of the employees worked as either a firefighter/emergency medical technician or a rescue supervisor. Although each had the training necessary to engage in fire suppression, they rarely, if ever, were called upon to do so. In fact, only one of the 12 class members ever engaged in fire suppression, and then only on a handful of occasions.

Instead, the EMTs’ duties consisted of providing emergency medical assistance. They responded to car accidents, heart attacks, and other situations requiring medical care. As a general rule, EMTs do not respond to fire calls, and when they do, they tend to the victims of the fire instead of fighting the fire itself. Although the EMTs were assigned the protective turnout gear worn by firefighters, they did not wear it when responding to fire calls.

The issue in the lawsuit was whether the firefighters should be treated as 40-hour-a-week employees or instead were covered by the partial overtime exemption found in Section 207(k) of the FLSA. The case turned on a fairly recent amendment to the FLSA, known as Section 203(y), that provides that “an employee in fire protection activities” covered by the Section 7(k) exemption must: (1) Be trained in fire suppression; (2) have the legal authority to engage in fire suppression; (3) have the responsibility to engage in fire suppression; (4) be employed by a fire department of a municipality, county, fire district, or state; and (5) be engaged either in the prevention, control, and extinguishment of fires or in the response to emergency situations where life, property, or the environment is at risk.

The federal Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the firefighters, and found that they were covered by the Section 7(k) exemption. Citing one of its own opinions, the Court concluded that “by the plain terms of Section 203(y)’s final clause, the provision applies not only to an employee who is engaged in the prevention, control, and extinguishment of fires,” but also to one who is engaged in response to emergency situations where life, property, or the environment is at risk. The ordinary meaning of the term ‘responsibility’ does not imply any actual engagement in fire suppression, and employees may have a responsibility to engage in fire suppression without actually engaging in fire suppression themselves.

“The plaintiffs here have been trained in fire suppression, have been issued turnout gear, and can be required on pain of disciplinary action to engage in fire suppression. The fact that they never actually engage in fire suppression is simply irrelevant.”

Gonzalez v. City of Deerfield Beach, 2008 WL 4964696 (11th Cir. 2008).

This article appears in the January 2009 issue