Supreme Court: Public Employers Can Dictate Comp Time Use

May 1, 2000 ( - The Supreme Court ruled Monday that public employees who agree to take time off instead of overtime pay can be forced to take the time at their employer's convenience.

The 6-3 decision in ‘Christensen vs. Harris County, Texas’ found “nothing in the FLSA or its implementing regulations prohibits an employer from compelling the use of compensatory time.”

Setting Standard

The Fair Labor Standards Act requires that hourly employees be paid time-and-a-half when they work more than 40 hours/week. The law was amended in 1985 to allow public employers to substitute up to 480 hours of “comp time” for overtime pay, provided the employees agree to the substitution.

The 1994 case involved a county’s mandate requiring sheriff’s deputies who reached the cap to use some of their comp time – even if they didn’t want to. The deputies accused the sheriff’s department of violating federal labor law by forcing them to use the overtime credits.

Decisions, decisions

The trial court agreed with the deputies, concluding that “the time off must be consumable by the worker on the worker’s terms.”

However, the Fifth District court reversed the lower court’s decision. Its ruling in favor of the employer county was “merely an application of the general principle that the employer can set workplace rules in the absence of a negotiated agreement to the contrary.”

Dissenters on the Supreme Court felt that an employer had no right to impose the use of compensatory time, in the absence of specific terms outlining that requirement.

The Clinton administration had urged the court to overturn the Fifth Circuit ruling, and the Justice Department had argued that accumulated time off belongs to employees and should be under their control.

The decision does not affect private industry employees.

Justice Clarence Thomas was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter and Antonin Scalia in the decision.

Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer dissented.

You can read the opinion at