Judge: FAA owes air traffic controllers overtime pay

A federal judge has ruled that the Federal Aviation Administration's personnel authorities do not allow the agency to compensate air traffic controllers who work overtime in credit hours and compensation time instead of paying them standard time-and-a-half rates, as required under the federal 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.

"In truth, in granting the FAA the flexibility to design a personnel management system untethered to the pay and benefits requirements of Title 5, Congress intended to permit the FAA the freedoms of a private sector employer -- but with those freedoms come the obligation to follow the FLSA's basic overtime pay requirements, just as private sector employers must do," U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Emily Hewitt wrote in her July 31 decision.

A group of 7,438 members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association joined the lawsuit filed last year. The plaintiffs claimed FAA wasn't calculating overtime pay rates correctly, provided air traffic controllers with one credit hour per overtime hour worked rather than paying them time-and-a-half rates, allowed shifts to start early and end late without paying controllers for that extra time, and scheduled bidding on vacation and schedule times for shifts when controllers weren't scheduled to work, forcing them to rely on proxies.

The majority of Hewitt's decision focused on her summary judgment on the substitution of credit hours and compensation time in place of overtime pay. She determined that questions remained about duties performed at the beginning and end of shifts, and about bidding on vacation and schedule time which could not be resolved without a trial. But she was unequivocal in her rejection of FAA's argument that 1996 personnel reforms gave the agency the authority to do away with overtime pay.

"The court notes that overtime is standard in the private sector under the [Fair Labor Standards Act]," Hewitt wrote. "If, as it appears, Congress sought to enable the FAA to operate in a more businesslike manner analogous to the private sector, abrogating the overtime provisions of the FLSA does not appear consistent with that goal…. There is an absence in either the text of the legislation or in the legislative history…of a clearly discernable indication of congressional intent to abrogate the protections of the FLSA."

FAA argued that the credit hours it issues are part of a flexible work program included in its 2003 collective bargaining unit with NATCA rather than a compensation mechanism. But Hewitt agreed with the plaintiffs that in cases where collective bargaining agreement provisions conflict with the Fair Labor Standards Act, federal law prevails.

It's not clear yet how damages will be calculated in the case. Hewitt's ruling did not set a time period for when the damages occurred. It also remains to be seen if controllers will receive compensation for pre- and post-shift work. FAA also has the option to appeal the case to the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

"We're reviewing the decision and discussing our options with the Department of Justice," said Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for FAA.

But NATCA hailed the decision as a victory in the union's ongoing dispute with the agency over pay and work rules.

"The court's decision that our members are due financial compensation is an affirmation that the FAA cannot railroad everything past NATCA without any oversight or accountability of federal laws, rules and regulations," said NATCA President Pat Forrey. "This is a very important step in making our members whole again."

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