EU Court of Justice rules on ‘stand-by’ services as ‘working time’

On February 21 2018, the European Court of Justice (CJEU) delivered a judgment on the ‘stand-by’ time of volunteer firefighters. The Court took an important stand related to the notion of working time and the scope of the working time directive, stating that the ‘stand-by’ time at home of a volunteer firefighter who is obliged to respond to calls from the employer within a short period must be regarded as ‘working time’.

EU Court of Justice rules on ‘stand-by’ services as ‘working time’

This case was brought to the CJEU by the Brussels Higher Labour Court and concerned the complaint of a volunteer firefighter of the town of Nivelles in Belgium. In view of the remuneration claimed for previous stand-by services, the Labour Court was uncertain whether these services could be considered as ‘working time’ according to the working time directive.

In previous judgements, the CJEU had already considered ‘on-call’ services at the working place as ‘working time’. Yet the current case referred to a ‘stand-by’ in which a worker was obliged to stay at home, to be available there to his employer and to be able to reach his place of work within 8 minutes.”

Regarding ‘stand-by’ at home, the CJEU made a distinction between “the obligation to remain physically present at the place determined by the employer and the geographical and temporal constraints resulting from the requirement to reach his place of work within 8 minutes” and the ‘stand-by’ duty, to “simply be at his employer’s disposal inasmuch as it must be possible to contact him.”

According to the Court, the concept of ‘working time’ therefore only applies to the particular situation in which the worker is obliged to spend ‘stand-by’ time at his home, he/she is available there to his/her employer and where he/she must be able to reach his/her place of work within 8 minutes.

In a first reaction, CESI Secretary General Klaus Heeger welcomed the judgement: “The fact that the CJEU clearly draws the logic consequences of both its case-law and the provisions of the working time directive shows that EU provisions for the protection of workers do not only have decoration purposes, but have strong concrete impacts. To consider, under certain circumstances, ‘stand by’ time as ‘working time’ must be seen as a clear steps toward improving working conditions and raising the safety and health protection standards throughout the EU. As trade unions, we must welcome the judgement.”

To summarise, the CJEU stated/re-confirmed the following:

• A volunteer firefighter must be classified as a ‘worker’ (provided he/she receives remuneration);
• The concepts of ‘working time’ and of ‘rest period’ are mutually exclusive, there is nothing in-between;
• The concepts of ‘working time’ and of ‘rest period’ apply to all categories of firefighters;
• ‘Stand by’ at home with the duty to respond to calls from his employer within 8 minutes must be regarded as ‘working time’;
• The question of remuneration falls outside the scope of the working time directive (and of the EU) and remains within the Member States´ competence.

This judgement could have strong impacts on national systems of fire and civil protection services, but also on sectors characterised by the need of rapid interventions and hence on the intensive use of ‘on-call’ and ‘stand-by’ services – above all in the security and health sectors. However, “before coming to hasty conclusions, a careful assessment will be needed”, Klaus Heeger stated.

The full judgment is available here.

Picture: European Court of Justice © CJEU 2018