01 Mar 2018

In the case of Ville de Nivelles v Matzak C-518/15, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) considered whether time spent by a retained firefighter during which he was on "stand-by" at home and could be required to report for work within eight minutes was "working time" under the Working Time Directive.

Facts

Rudy Matzak was a retained volunteer firefighter for the Ville de Nivelles in Belgium. One week out of four, Mr Matzak was on call during the evenings and weekends. He was allowed to stay at home when on call but had to be ready and able to attend the fire station within eight minutes of being called. This meant that he was required to live near to the fire station, and the activities he was able to carry out while on stand-by were severely restricted. Mr Matzak was not paid for the time he spent on stand-by.

After Mr Matzak had finished his one year probation, he brought proceedings against his employer complaining that he should be paid for time spent on stand-by duty.

The Higher Labour Court in Brussels referred a number of questions to the ECJ for a preliminary ruling. The main question was how to interpret the relevant provisions of the Working Time Directive (the Directive) and whether they prevented home-based on-call time from being regarded as working time when, although the on-call time was undertaken at the home of the worker, the constraints on him during the on-call time (such as the duty to respond to calls from his employer within eight minutes) very significantly restricted the opportunities available to him to undertake other activities.

ECJ decision

The ECJ ruled that the Directive must be interpreted as meaning that stand-by time that a worker spends near his workplace, with the duty to respond to calls from his employer within eight minutes, must be regarded as working time.

In this case, the obligation on Mr Matzak to remain physically present at a location specified by his employer, with a requirement to respond to calls at such short notice, limited his opportunity to engage in his personal or social interests.

Comment

The ECJ's decision confirms that, where a worker's freedom to engage in non-work activities during on-call time at home is severely impacted, that time must be classified as working time.

This case will have widespread ramifications, not just for firefighters but for all workers where their employer requires them to comply with rules that significantly restrict their opportunities to take part in activities outside of work. The difficulty in applying this decision to future cases might be deciding what constitutes "significantly restricting" the opportunities for other activities. This case focussed on a response time of eight minutes being a significant restriction and, arguably, a longer response time will be less restrictive and therefore less likely to be regarded as working time.