Washington Outlook

Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Local Governments in Comp Time Case

By Larry Jones and Roger Dahl
May 15, 2000

In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court on May 1 ruled in Christensen v. Harris County that a local government can require its employees to use their accumulated compensatory leave in order to limit its financial liability. Speaking on behalf of the Court's majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said "nothing in the FLSA or its implementing regulations prohibits a public employer from compelling the use of compensatory time." This ruling is viewed as a victory for state and local governments because it acknowledges their authority to determine the amount of comp time liability they will carry on their books.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, state and local governments are permitted to give their employees time off at their regular rate of pay for overtime work, so long as employees earn one and one-half hour of compensatory (comp) time off for every hour of overtime work. There is a maximum limit, however, on the number of comp time hours that public employees may accumulate, 480 hours for public safety and emergency workers and 240 hours for other state and local employees.

At issue in this case was whether a government employer can require its employees to use their accumulated comp time against their wishes. The case involved Harris County deputy sheriffs, who sued to challenge a policy adopted by the county that requires employees who accumulate comp time hours at or near the maximum limit, to make arrangements to take time off in order to reduce their accrued comp time. Absent an agreement or understanding, the deputy sheriffs claimed that the FLSA "implicitly prohibits" the county from compelling them to use accrued comp time.

In an opinion letter issued earlier by the U.S. Department of Labor, the agency provided a similar opinion, pointing out that absent such agreement, "neither the statute nor the regulations permit an employer to require an employee to use accrued comp time." But the Supreme Court disagreed, stating that DOL' s opinion letter "is not entitled to deference..." And that "nothing in the Department of Labor's regulations even arguably requires that an employer's compelled use policy must be included in an agreement."

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