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April 14, 2008
Is 'Doing' the Same as Being 'Responsible for'?
Six Georgia paramedics who were switched from nonexempt to exempt status charged that their reclassification violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Because they had become firefighters, the county made the change under a congressional amendment to FLSA. The paramedics disagreed.

What happened. DeKalb County formerly maintained an Emergency Medical Services Bureau, which employed the paramedics, and a Bureau of Fire Services. In 2001, the two entities merged into DeKalb County Fire & Rescue Services (DCFRS). For a time, the paramedics continued to be paid overtime for work beyond 40 hours a week.

When a new fire chief started in early 2003, he encouraged all paramedics to obtain national firefighting training that exceeds Georgia's minimum requirements. All six plaintiffs received level-1 certification, and three went on to gain level-2 certification. The level-1 group was then classified Firefighter/Paramedics, while the level-2 group became Fire Medics. Job descriptions were revised to include fire suppression duties. Next, all paramedics were given a new 28-day schedule that did not provide overtime pay for work over 40 hours in a week.

Contending that although they were qualified for fire suppression, they were never allowed to do it, six paramedics sued to regain their overtime pay. At issue were early interpretations of a provision of FLSA suggesting that firefighters were exempt employees. A federal district court judge ruled against the plaintiffs, so they appealed to the 11th Circuit, which covers Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.

What the court said. Judges reviewed the FLSA provision that exempts "any [public] employee in fire protection activities," provided the employer meets certain scheduling standards. But two regulatory interpretations of that provision created confusion for many years: One required that such employees actually perform firefighting activities, while the other said that any employee spending more than 20 percent of his or her time on non-firefighting activities is not exempt.

The six paramedics insisted they deserved overtime pay. But judges said that in 1999, Congress amended FLSA to clarify the confusion: The amendment describes as an "employee in fire protection activities" any firefighter or paramedic who is trained in fire suppression and responds to emergency situations. Judges ruled that the plaintiffs meet that definition and are exempt. Huff et al. v. DeKalb County, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, No. 07-10862 (2/15/08).

Point to remember: Correctly classifying employees is one of HR's toughest challenges, which may be why so many workers sue over the issue.

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