Workers are sometimes required to be on stand-by, meaning their employer can contact them or they may be called into work. But when does such “stand-by” time count as working time? That was the question recently considered by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
In Ville de Nivelles v Matzak, Mr Matzak was a volunteer firefighter in Belgium. While on stand-by, he had to remain within a certain distance of his fire station in the town of Nivelles. In the event of an emergency, Mr Matzak needed to be able to reach his place of work within eight minutes, so his employer required him to stay at home when on stand-by, in order to satisfy this time requirement.
The ECJ decision
For many workers, being on stand-by simply means that they need to remain contactable by their employer. They can go about their personal activities wherever they like, so long as their employer can get in touch.
However, this was not such a case. The ECJ found that the need for firefighters on stand-by to be physically present at their place of work within eight minutes limited their ability to “devote” themselves to non-work activities and fully enjoy personal and social interests.
The ECJ therefore decided that time spent by firefighters on stand-by at home, where they may be required to report to work within eight minutes, is “working time” under the European Working Time Directive.
So, in a nutshell, the answer to the question in this case was that stand-by time at home is working time if the employee is restricted from taking part in non-work activities and interests.
Courts and tribunals in the UK must still interpret the domestic law, the Working Time Regulations, in line with European rulings. It is helpful to have some clarity on the meaning of “stand by time” as it is an area which causes confusion.
However, the case is only likely to apply where there are similarly extreme arrangements and it is very obvious that a worker’s personal life is being restricted by being on stand by. Given the very many different types of on-call and stand-by arrangements that employers have, each case will turn on it s own facts. However, particular sectors such as the care and hotel sectors may be more affected.
Employers should review any conditions placed on employees on stand-by and consider whether they currently count this as working time, and if not, whether they should.