The Matzak ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union: A positive development regarding the concept of working time

21 Jun 2018

On February 21 2018, the Court of Justice of the European Union delivered a significant verdict in favour of all workers of the European Union who are requested to provide “on-call” services from home. In a guest commentary for CESI, Pierre Joassart, lawyer at Deckers & Joassart who successfully steered the case through the Court of Justice, explains the background and consequences of the judgment.

The Matzak ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union:  A positive development regarding the concept of working time

Mr Matzak has been a volunteer fire-fighter at the Belgian fire station of Nivelles (30 km away from Brussels) for thirty years.

Volunteer fire-fighters provide their services as a fire-fighter alongside their main job. The former services are usually provided in the evenings or at the weekend.

Mr Matzak, like his colleagues, was remunerated when in actual service and when on duty at his place of work. However, when on call at home (a compulsory duty), he was not paid, with the exception of the time he was called into work.

When on stand-by at home, he was forced to remain available and report present at his place of work within eight minutes if called in.

With approximately thirty of his colleagues, Mr Matzak launched legal proceedings under Belgian jurisdiction in order to obtain pay for his stand-by time at home.

The Labour Court of Brussels referred the case to the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg in order to decide whether this stand-by time at home was to be considered working time.

In its decision dated 21 February 2018, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that Mr Matzak’s on-call time when not at his place of work constituted working time.

Indeed, in its ruling, the Court stated that “stand-by time which a worker spends at home with the duty to respond to calls from his employer within 8 minutes, very significantly restricting the opportunities for other activities, must be regarded as ‘working time’”.

In other words, if it is a worker’s duty to stay at home with the obligation to respond to his/her employer’s calls within such a short timeframe (in this case, eight minutes), then this is to be considered working time.

This represents a fundamental development for all European workers because until present, the Court of Justice of the European Union considered only duty at the place of work to be working time (e.g. even in the case of stand-by time), whereas time spent at home – even with the obligation of responding to the call of duty from the employer within a short timeframe – was never considered working time.

However, let us remember that the ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union only considers working time in terms of workers’ well-being.

The Court of Justice of the European Union has consistently interpreted that the European directives relating to working time do not directly imply the right to remuneration.

As a result, the present ruling may have a very important ripple effect in addition to the issue of remuneration.

Indeed, the European Union’s Working Time Directive does not allow an employer to require his/her workers to work over 48 hours a week and sets forth a rest period of 11 hours per 24-hour period. Therefore, this means that a worker cannot be on stand-by duty at home subject to constraints such as those Mr Matzak was under for over 48 hours a week or 13 hours per 24-hour period (i.e. twenty-four hours minus eleven hours).

However, across the European Union, in many jobs both in emergency response and healthcare services impose longer stand-by periods at home for a longer time than that.

In addition, despite the fact that this must be verified under the legislation of each country, it is highly likely that the fact that this has been interpreted as working time on a European level may have an impact on remuneration, i.e., that such stand-by time may grant the right to pay.

Thus, under Belgian law, the Labour Court of Mons issued a ruling on 25 May 2018 stating that, following the Matzak ruling, all stand-by time at home is to be remunerated in full.

If this case law is to be respected, it will have a considerable impact on the budget of administrations.

However, if these bodies react intelligently, they will come to the conclusion that it is more advantageous to request stand-by time at the place of work, because the pay will be the same – and workers on duty at the place of work means higher service quality for the citizens.

For instance, if Mr Matzak were to be on stand-by at the fire station, he would be able to respond to the call of duty eight minutes sooner.

In a life-or-death situation, eight minutes can make a significant difference when it comes to chances of survival.

The Matzak judgment will undoubtedly lead to others because if the Court has interpreted stand-by time with the duty to report to the service within eight minutes as working time, meaning that the “line” between working time and rest periods will be called into question. For instance, will a duty to report in at the place of work within fifteen minutes or half an hour be considered working time?

One thing is clear: the Matzak judgment represents case law on working time at the Court of Justice of the European Union and from now on, stand-by time at home may constitute working time.

Picture: Pierre Joassart © Deckers & Joassart 2018