European Court of Justice rules that standby time spent at home is working time where a worker is restricted from engaging in social activities
The EU Working Time Directive defines ‘working time’ as any period during which the worker is working; at the employer’s disposal; and carrying out their duties. Deciding whether time spent on call constitutes working time has been a contentious area, although case law has established that decisive factors include a requirement to be present and available at a place determined by the employer. In Ville de Nivelles v Matzak, the ECJ considered whether a firefighter’s standby time could constitute working time under the Directive.
Mr Matzak is a retained firefighter employed by Ville de Nivelles in Belgium. He is required to be available on call for one week out of every four, during the evenings and at weekends. Whilst on standby, he must be contactable and report to the fire station within eight minutes of receiving an emergency call. This means that he has to live near the fire station and that his leisure activities are considerably restricted when he is on standby. Mr Matzak’s standby time is unpaid.
Mr Matzak brought a claim against his employer, arguing that his standby time constitutes working time under the Working Time Directive and should therefore be paid. The Higher Labour Court in Brussels referred the case to the ECJ.
Agreeing with the prior opinion of the Advocate-General, the ECJ has now held that Mr Matzak’s standby time at home is working time because the requirement for him to respond to calls from his employer within eight minutes means that his personal and social interests are severely restricted. Mr Matzak’s situation can be distinguished from a worker who must simply remain contactable whilst on standby and whose personal life is not significantly affected.
This decision highlights the importance of assessing the quality of time spent on call, and the extent to which the worker is free to pursue personal and social activities. In this case, the requirement to respond to emergency calls within eight minutes was clearly a significant restriction. However, it may be harder to decide whether standby time is working time where the expected response time is less stringent.