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‘Long-shift’ workers could recover for unpaid ‘sleep time’

If you’re an employee who works long shifts (for example, seven days on and seven days off, in which you’re technically always on duty), or if you’re an employer with such workers, it’s important to know that sleep time must be compensated. Federal regulations allow for certain arrangements under which sleep time is unpaid, but the regulations can be complicated, which is why employers need to run their policies by an employment attorney to make sure they’re not wading in dangerous waters.

A recent decision from the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals makes that clear. In the case, employees of a nonprofit organization that runs group homes for developmentally disabled adults maintained long-term staff to care for its residents. These workers pulled seven-day-on/seven-day-off shifts from Thursday to Thursday. Workers’ shifts included four unpaid four-hour breaks each week, and eight unpaid hours of nightly sleep time.

A group of workers took the employer to court seeking unpaid back wages, arguing that the sleep time should have been compensated under the Federal Labor Standards Act.

The employer argued that a Department of Labor regulation provided that a worker residing on his or her employer’s premises on a permanent basis for an extended period of time can enter into any “reasonable agreement” about payment for sleep time. Under the same set of regulations, the employer argued, an “extended period of time” was defined as living there for at least 120 hours in a workweek.

But a trial judge noted that the employer established a Sunday-to-Sunday work week for payroll purposes while the workers lived there Thursday-to-Thursday. The judge found that this did not comply with the regulations and awarded back pay plus multiple damages. The employer appealed, but the 1st Circuit affirmed.

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