What a 'working chief' needs to know about overtime
Some jurisdictions want a police chief who also does all the street work of an officer – without paying that chief overtime
Being a “working chief” of police frequently means doing everything a chief is supposed to do and everything a patrol officer is supposed to do, so the jurisdiction doesn’t have to hire an officer. And oh, by the way – you don’t get paid overtime.
Overtime can be a major area of concern for the working chief. Not every working chief of a small jurisdiction is entitled to overtime for a variety of reasons, but many are, and they may not be receiving it because of ignorance, oversight or intention.
Before you accept a position as a “working chief,” it is essential that you become very familiar with the Fair Labor Standards Act as it pertains to “exempt” versus “non-exempt” classifications. Do not assume that the people who will be paying you are on top of the legalities – far too often, they’re not.
Notwithstanding those who honestly don’t know any better, unfortunately some jurisdictions want all the benefits of having a chief who does the street work of an officer without paying that chief overtime.
Those jurisdictions may not take kindly to having their chief wave a printout of federal law in their faces and saying, “You owe me!” They may decide that they instead want a chief who won’t cause problems. Sadly, that’s been known to happen. If you have already accepted the job and find yourself in such a situation, you must tread diplomatically and be certain you are on solid legal ground.
Devil in the Details
Don’t assume you’re automatically non-exempt and entitled to overtime if you’re a chief who occasionally writes traffic tickets or takes a report. The Fair Labor Standards Act is not so simple. A number of specific requirements must be met before a chief can be considered non-exempt, starting with the number of employees in the jurisdiction.
For example, small public police departments that employ four or fewer officers are typically exempt from having to pay overtime to those officers. You don’t want to be the chief who demands overtime, only to have the employer decide that they’re not going to pay overtime to anyone anymore! That won’t do much for morale among the troops.
Even with larger small departments, the issue of whether the chief qualifies for overtime is not automatically clear cut. Factors such as primary job duties and the percentage of time spent doing administrative versus enforcement tasks all come into play. If you have a contract that spells out your duties, you may be in luck. In the absence of such a contract, the position description that appeared in the advertisement you were hired under can be of use in determining if you should be considered exempt or non-exempt when it comes to overtime.
If you’re going to be pushing for a change that will cost the employer more money, it is essential that you’re certain you’re on solid legal ground before you even raise the issue. Labor law is a legal specialization, so make sure you consult with an expert in that field before even raising the issue with your employer.
Never forget that it’s possible to win the battle and lose the war. As distasteful as it is, the reality is that the chief’s position is ultimately subject to the whims of politics. Unless you have a rock-solid contract, you can probably be “un-appointed” as easily as you were appointed – for any (or no) reason.
You may be absolutely in the right as far as labor laws are concerned, but you are in a much more vulnerable position than the typical officer in a similar situation. Diplomacy and tact are essential in such matters, and you may have to make some hard choices regarding how far you want to go if you meet strong resistance.