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Court Rules Public Employers Have Say in Use of Comp Time


WASHINGTON — Public employers can force their hourly workers to take time off to avoid paying them overtime, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The 6-3 ruling leaves it to employers, not workers, to decide when "comp time" is used.

Monday's decision covers police, firefighters and public hospital workers as well as the many thousands of other state or local employees who are offered compensatory time off rather than extra pay for their overtime work. Private sector workers are not affected, however.

Until now, some courts had said that those public employees were entitled to use their accumulated comp time whenever they chose to do so. If the comp time goes unused, the employee eventually can receive a cash payment for it.

But the Supreme Court often shields state and local governments from federal authority, and Monday's ruling interprets federal labor law in a way that gives public employers control over how their employees use their comp time.

The issue came before the court in a lawsuit brought by 127 sheriff's deputies in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston. The deputies challenged their department's policy of giving bureau commanders the power to decide how and when comp time was used. The commanders were told to keep a lid on how much total comp time was accumulated and they were directed to schedule deputies off duty to reduce their comp time.

In their lawsuit, the deputies maintained that they had earned the comp time through working extra hours at the department's behest and that they should be entitled to use the comp time when they chose.

Disagreeing, Justice Clarence Thomas said that, although federal labor law requires public employers to give their employees either extra pay or time off for overtime work, it does not say how this comp time must be handled.

"Nothing in the [federal law] . . . prohibits an employer from compelling the use of compensatory time," Thomas said.

The decision interprets the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the nation's landmark labor law.

The law was extended to cover public employees in 1985, although Congress acted to ease the financial burden on state and local agencies. It gave these agencies the option of giving comp time to their workers, rather than extra pay. The law also says: "An employee who has accrued compensatory time off . . . shall be permitted by the employer to use such time within a reasonable period after making the request if [it] does not unduly disrupt the operation of the public agency."

The Clinton administration, the AFL-CIO and the National Assn. of Police Organizations said this provision means that employees should be free to use their comp time at their discretion, so long as it does not "unduly disrupt" their department's work.

Thomas called that interpretation "unpersuasive. That provision says nothing about restricting an employer's efforts to require employees to use compensatory time."

Dissenting in the case (Christensen vs. Harris County, 98-1167) were Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

In other actions, the court:

* Threw out four counts of a Texas man's 15-count conviction for sexual abuse of his stepdaughter because those counts were based on a change in the law that occurred after the crimes were committed (Carmell vs. Texas, 98-7540). The narrow, 5-4 ruling does not affect Texas crimes that were committed after 1993, when the state made it easier to prosecute some sex crimes.

* Agreed to decide whether police can keep a person from entering his home while they obtain a warrant to search it. Two Illinois officers did just that and later found marijuana inside a trailer home that belonged to Charles McArthur. The state courts threw out the evidence, however, and ruled the search unreasonable and in violation of the 4th Amendment. In the fall, the court will hear the state's appeal in the case (Illinois vs. McArthur, 99-1132).

* Turned away an appeal urging the court to hold Internet service providers liable for defamatory e-mail (Lunney vs. Prodigy Services, 99-1430). Without commenting or issuing a ruling, the justices rejected the appeal to reconsider the matter.

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