Can FMLA Protect Employees from Mandatory Overtime?

lackawanna Prison FMLA lawsuit
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Allie Blackham

Marketing Content Manager

Updated February 10, 2023

For hourly employees, the need to work overtime may arise from time to time, or it may be a common occurrence. However, employers must be aware of laws and regulations that ensure workers receive fair compensation for the additional hours worked. Two pieces of legislation that may come into play when considering mandatory overtime include the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Family Leave Medical Act (FMLA).

What is the FLSA?

The FLSA is a federal law that dictates pay issues and overtime regulations in the U.S. However, it does not prohibit employers from requiring adult employees to work mandatory overtime. Instead, it regulates that overtime hours must be paid at one-and-a-half times the employee’s standard hourly rate. Youth workers who are under age 16 cannot be subject to mandatory overtime under the FLSA.

Other federal laws may impact whether an employer can force an employee to work more than 40 hours in a workweek. One example is the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which applies to employees in unions. Mandatory overtime is considered an unfair labor practice if an employee in a union has a contract that regulates or bars overtime.

Additional laws that restrict or limit mandatory overtime practices include:

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) maintains regulations around providing safe workplaces for employees. Some of these regulations may apply if working mandatory overtime hours threatens the safety of an employee. Certain industries also limit the number of hours an employee can work, such as trucking and air transportation.

What is the FMLA?

The FMLA provides protection for employees, allowing them to take leave for specific medical and family reasons without the risk of losing their jobs. Under this legislation, eligible employees qualify for up to 12 weeks of leave during a 12-month period. They can use this time for the following reasons:

  • Following the birth of a child
  • Caring for a newborn child within a year of birth
  • Following the placement of a child through adoption or foster care
  • Caring for a child placed through adoption or foster care within one year of placement
  • Caring for the employee’s parent, child, or spouse with a serious health condition
  • Dealing with a severe health condition that causes the employee to be unable to perform their job duties

Additionally, employees with spouses, children, or parents serving on active duty for the U.S. Armed Forces can use this time to manage any qualifying exigency. If the covered servicemember experiences a serious illness or injury, the employee may qualify for up to 26 weeks of leave.

Lawsuit over Required Overtime May Determine FMLA Reach

In Lackawanna County Prison, employees are required as part of their union contract to work overtime. Under this overtime policy, the prison first seeks volunteers to cover shifts. But if shifts remain open and not enough people come forward voluntarily, mandatory overtime is mandated based on seniority.

A series of federal lawsuits by eight employees claim that the FMLA protects them from mandatory overtime work. The county disagrees and believes that they are unable to make any accommodations that would allow FMLA employees to avoid overtime hours.

Can the FMLA Prevent Mandatory Overtime?

As of 2009, a regulation under the FMLA clarified that an employee could use their leave to cover mandatory overtime hours. For example, if a retail worker was required to work five hours of mandatory overtime per week during the holiday season, they could use five hours of FMLA leave rather than working 45 hours. Voluntary overtime does not apply in this case, as an employee can decline.

In each of the three lawsuits, employees claim that FMLA intermittent leave must apply to overtime shifts. In the first lawsuit, filed in March 2016, six guards claimed that their medical conditions prevented them from working overtime. They claimed the prison refused to accommodate their disabilities and retaliated against them when they refused to work overtime.

However, the County Solicitor Don Frederickson disagreed, stating that the guards just don’t want to work overtime. The guard’s contract with the union allows the prison to require guards to work overtime. Each of the six guards obtained a doctor’s note stating they weren’t allowed to work more than 8 hours a day.

As a result, every time the guards were asked to work overtime, they invoked FMLA leave. Under the FMLA, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations to allow employees to perform their job duties.

Does the FMLA Override Union Contracts?

The prison contends that because overtime is mandatory, allowing employees to take leave would place a burden on senior staff in order to accommodate the disabled individuals. According to the union contract, if overtime volunteers aren’t available, officials can require overtime from guards starting at the newest guards and working up to more senior guards. Allowing FMLA leave as a means for employees to skip mandatory overtime would compromise the seniority clause of the union’s contract.

Shortly after that, a second lawsuit was filed by Paul Sopinski, who claimed that overtime interfered with his ability to care for his wife’s medical condition. Sopinsky refused to work overtime and claimed FMLA leave in order to refuse overtime.

FMLA allows for intermittent leave and reasonable accommodations for employees with medical conditions. It also allows employers to require employees to take paid leave concurrently with FMLA leave.

Mandatory overtime and FMLA intermittent leave as a means for employees to deny overtime shifts is a growing problem for prison officials. Currently 24 percent of the prison employees are on full-time or intermittent leave through FMLA. That creates a huge void in shifts that can’t be filled, requiring other employees to cover these hours. Officials claim there are no accommodations they can make for Bevan to work no overtime.

In 2017, the county settled two of the suits filed by former guards. Since then, a judge upheld the ruling made by an arbitrator that the prison can’t credit employees using FMLA in lieu of mandatory overtime to appear as if they had worked the shift. This mattered in the ruling because after working a mandatory overtime shift, an employee’s name moved to the bottom of the list, thus reducing their need to work another overtime shift right away.

FMLA Suits May Continue to Come Until the Issue is Settled

Questions like these are important for employers to understand. If FMLA does provide overtime protection to employees, it could have big implications for employers. Alan Joyce, an attorney claims that the courts have determined that employers are not required to infringe on the rights of non-disabled employers in order to accommodate FMLA or ADA requirements.

Although the county has settled two of the last three suits, they still face another. Further, they could continue to face future suits over the same issue unless the debate is settled in federal court, which is likely to cost the prison more in legal costs than the amount of the past settlements.

Simplify Tracking with WorkforceHub

Businesses who require employee overtime occasionally or regularly should watch what happens in Lackawanna County with FMLA overtime suits. Further, these and other employers often have to comply with multiple conflicting city ordinances defining sick leave accrual, overtime, secure scheduling and other laws.

Additionally, these businesses have to also comply with federal overtime laws and any other national or local laws that are enacted.

WorkforceHub includes a comprehensive array of workforce management and time tracking tools that can help businesses to more easily stay in compliance with local and national laws. Records are effortlessly kept for years, and accruals are automatically tracked and reported to employees in accordance with state and city laws. Additionally, with geo-timekeeping clocks, businesses can effortlessly track time worked in specific cities to ensure compliance.

Explore these tools and how they can help your company remain compliant with the array of labor and time laws. Try WorkforceHub for free today!

Simplify HR management today.

Simplify HR management today.

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