Who knew the badge, the holster and the iconic dark blue threads worn by Los Angeles police officers could make punching the clock so complicated?
A federal judge ruled this week that Los Angeles Police Department officers should be paid for the time it takes them to put on and take off their uniforms and safety equipment, a decision that could cost the city millions of dollars in back pay and higher salaries.
In a 39-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Gary Feess found that the several minutes it takes an officer to dress for duty is a vital part of the job because “police uniforms convey and legitimize officers’ authority, increase officer safety, and help deter crime.”
The dress time, which is generally thought to be between five and 15 minutes on each end of a shift, Feess decided, falls under the compensation rules of the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act, a long-standing law that requires employers to pay their employees for all hours worked.
The decision, which applies to three similar cases that had been brought by LAPD officers, drew a sharp rebuke from Police Chief William J. Bratton, who lashed out at the officers and the city’s Police Protective League, the rank-and-file officers’ union that has filed a separate lawsuit on the issue.
“I think that it’s outrageous that they are even seeking” the additional pay, he said. “We have enough costs to bear without paying officers to take their clothes on and off.”
Paul M. Weber, president of the union, fired back, calling the ruling “a huge deal.” It is unfair, Weber argued, that officers must don their uniforms, holsters, bullet-proof vests and other equipment as part of the job, but can also be disciplined by supervisors for failing to be ready for duty at the start of a shift. “It’s the law,” Weber said. “All we’ve been saying is that we want the city and the department to comply with it.”
Greg Petersen, the lawyer who sued the city on behalf of the officers, said that preparation time involves more than putting on a uniform. Strapping on Sam Browne equipment belts, which can weigh more than 30 pounds, and required body armor, as well as preparing weapons and other equipment for duty, takes time and effort, he said.
Throughout the country, paying officers to dress for duty is a highly contentious and litigated matter. Though not widely embraced, some law enforcement agencies, such as the California Highway Patrol, do compensate officers for the time it takes them to suit up for duty, Petersen said.
The effect of Feess’ ruling on LAPD salaries remains to be seen. Union and department officials shied away from making estimates of how much it would cost to compensate the roughly 9,800 officers, most of whom typically serve either three 12-hour shifts or four 10-hour shifts each week.
But, with annual salaries starting at about $55,000 and the union arguing that the compensation should be retroactive and applied to overtime payments and pensions, the implications are potentially large. Officers who makes $75,000 a year, for example, would be eligible for roughly $2,000 more in salary each year if they were compensated for 10 minutes on both ends of each shift.
Early next month, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear arguments in two cases that address the same issue, attorneys said. The city of Los Angeles must decide whether to wait and see whether that higher court rules in favor of police departments and sets a legal precedent, to appeal Feess’ ruling right away, or to concede defeat and start hammering out a pay agreement with its officers.
Regardless, the ruling is not welcome news for the city as it struggles to close a budget gap estimated at more than $500 million.
Feess rejected several arguments made by attorneys for the city, including the contention that the time it takes an officer to get ready is so short as to be trivial.
At the heart of the ruling was the ambiguous question of what defines work for a police officer -- a conundrum that the U.S. Supreme Court has wrestled with several times in other types of workplaces, generally siding with workers over management. In 2005, for example, the high court upheld rulings that workers at meatpacking and poultry processing plants should be paid for the time it takes to put on mandatory safety equipment.