No principle of law found either in the Fair Labor Standards Act or in court decisions precludes on-call waiting time from also being working time. A legal formula cannot resolve cases so varied in their facts. Whether in a case such time falls within or without the Act is a question of fact to be resolved by appropriate findings of the trial court. This involves scrutiny and construction of the agreements between the parties, appraisal of their practical construction of the agreement by conduct, the nature of the service, its relation to the waiting time, and all of the surrounding circumstances.
During the daytime, some of the employees were engaged in general fire-hall duties and in maintaining the firefighting equipment at the employer's packing plant. Other employees operated elevators or acted as relief men in fire duties. The employees also agreed to stay on the employer's premises or within hailing distance three to four nights a week. The employees were not required to perform any specific tasks during the evenings, except to answer fire alarms. In the action that the employees brought to recover overtime for the periods they spent on-call, the district court ruled as a matter of law that the time the employees spent waiting to respond to alarms did not constitute hours worked, which was affirmed on appeal.
Is waiting time, with the exclusion of sleeping and eating time, constituted working time?
The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed the lower courts' judgments because there was no principle of law that precluded waiting time from also being working time. The Court held that whether waiting time, with the exclusion of sleeping and eating time, constituted working time was a question of fact that had to be decided based upon the agreements between the parties and all of the surrounding circumstances. Facts may show that the employee was engaged to wait, or they may show that he waited to be engaged. His compensation may cover both waiting and task, or only performance of the task itself. The evidence in this case in some respects, such as the understanding as to separate compensation for answering alarms, is different. Each case must stand on its own facts. But in this case, the District Court’s evaluation and inquiry were apparently restricted by its notion that waiting time may not be work, an understanding of the law which is erroneous. A remand of the case was appropriate.