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Posted 6 March 2018
by Stephen Jennings

Firefighter Ruling Sparks New Heat for Employers



The standby arrangements for Belgium’s volunteer firefighters are set to cause new headaches for employers with workers who are paid flat rates for time on-call or when sleeping in the workplace, with a judgment that will affect companies across the European Union.

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has ruled that volunteer firefighter Rudy Matzak is a ‘worker’ and that within the meaning of the Working Time Directive his time on standby is ‘working’ time.

Under that Directive, ‘working time’ refers to “any period during which the worker is working, at the employer’s disposal and carrying out his activity or duties, in accordance with national laws and/or practice”. It applies to all sectors, including both public and private, and ‘rest period’ refers to any period not classed as working time.

When he was on call, Mr Matzak had to be at home and able to fulfil the requirement of an eight-minute response time to reach the fire station, and the Court said that this obligation to remain “physically present at the place determined by the employer and the … constraints resulting from the need to reach his place of work within eight minutes” meant that he was limited in how he could pursue his personal and social life.  This contrasted with a worker who may be asked simply to be contactable.

The knock-on effect for employers of standby time being deemed to be working time is that it has to be taken into account when complying with rest periods, working hours and the Working Time Regulations generally.

This latest judgment adds to the already complex minefield for compliance with on-call workers. Whether or not a worker on standby is ‘working’ will depend on the circumstances of each case, but the fact that the issue is complicated with grey areas does not mean that businesses can ignore it – ignorance of the law has never been a valid defence.

For any situation that seems unclear, it’s worth getting some independent advice.   An easily made change to the way that on-call systems are operated might clarify things and take an employee out of a potential ‘working’ situation.

If you need to speak to anyone regarding a matter similar to this, then please do not hesitate to contact our experienced team of employment law solicitors.

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About the author

Stephen Jennings

Partner and Solicitor

Partner in the litigation department specialising in employment law, he is the relationship manager for many of the firm's employment clients