German workers should be paid for overtime: EU court

Answering emails during your 'Feierabend'? According to a European Court of Justice ruling on Tuesday, this time should be recorded and paid.

German workers should be paid for overtime: EU court
Employees working overtime should be paid for the extra hours, the EJC ruled on Tuesday. Photo: Depositphotos/Dragon Images

Employers in the EU will be obliged to systematically record the daily working hours of their employees, the European Court of Justice ruled on Tuesday. That means that checking emails during breakfast or taking a phone call with one's boss during the Feierabend will be officially considered work.

German employers are outraged, while trade unions are celebrating. But what exactly is changing now?

SEE ALSO: Why every country should get on board with the German Feierabend

Just what did the ECJ decide?

The core of the ruling is as follows: all EU states must oblige employers to set up an “objective, reliable and accessible system” to record the daily working time of every employee.

The case stemmed from a complaint in Spain that Deutsche Bank SAE should be obligated to the record the time logged each day by staff members, even in typical “off-hours” as they didn't feel they were being fairly compensated. The requirement now applies in Germany and all EU member states.

It's yet to be determined exactly how the ruling will be carried out in Germany. Every individual member state can decide how exactly the system will be implemented, including whether individual activities can be omitted if they can't be precisely measured.

What is the purpose of the ruling?

The ECJ insists on EU workers' rights for the protection of health. Every employee has a fundamental right to a defined number of maximum working hours, they say, and to daily and weekly rest periods.

Only if the entire working time is systematically recorded can overtime be quantified, states the ruling. This is the only way in which employees can also assert their rights.

The number of overtime hours in Germany in 2017 was 2.1 billion, half of them unpaid, reports the Federal Government.

SEE ALSO: 100 years later, Germany calls the 8-hour work day into question

What is the legal situation so far?

“The law already stipulates that working hours in excess of regular working hours, i.e. overtime, must be recorded,” labour market researcher Enzo Weber of the Institute for Labour Market and Occupational Research in Nuremberg told FOCUS Online.

“For this purpose, the regular working time must be known,” he said. This means that employers would actually have to determine the normal working hours, and that nothing would change in practice.

What does this mean for German employees?

“All working hours must now be recorded,” Annelie Buntenbach, member of the board of the German Federation of Trade Unions, told DPA. “We are very happy.”

From the unions' point of view, the ruling does not prevent flexible working hours, or working from home. With modern tools such as apps, time can also be recorded anywhere for employees.

But the legally capped daily working hours and the statutory rest periods of at least eleven hours should be easier to enforce, she said.

“If you make another business call or answer emails at nine in the evening, the working time is to be documented as such,” explained Buntenbach. With a rest period of eleven hours “one must not start again before eight the next morning.”

Dr. Sören Langner, partner and specialist lawyer for labour law in Berlin, took a more critical view of the ruling: “For employers, recording daily and weekly working hours means a new bureaucracy monster and the temporary end of working hours based on trust.”

And how did employers react?

Not surprisingly, many German employers have reacted badly to the EJC judgement.

The Federal Association of German Employers' Associations (BDA) complained that this decision appeared antiquated. “We employers are against the general reintroduction of the time clock in the 21st century,” they said.

The decision was made to the detriment of workers who want to work flexibly, they added, stating that it goes against the typical honour system based on salaried employees working a certain amount of time, but not having to report where and when the work was carried out.


Ruling  – (das) Urteil  

European Court of Justice – (der) Europäische Gerichtshof

The core (of a ruling/an idea) – (der) Kern

Overtime – (die) Überstunden

We're aiming to help our readers improve their German by translating vocabulary from some of our news stories. Did you find this article useful? Do you have any suggestions? Let us know.

Europäische Gerichtshof
Europäische Gerichtshof
Europäische Gerichtshof
Europäische Gerichtsho

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Reader question: Is it ever legally too hot to work from home in Germany?

Germany has regulations on working during a heatwave - but does that also apply to people who work remotely? We take a look.

Reader question: Is it ever legally too hot to work from home in Germany?

The number of people working from home shot up during the Covid pandemic, and though employees no longer have the right to work remotely by law, many have chosen to stick with more flexible arrangements and set up a home office at least part of the week.

This is great news for people who enjoy a lie-in more than a long commute, but there are some downsides. One major issue is that it’s not always clear how Germany’s strict employee protection rules actually apply in a home setting. The rules for working during a heatwave are a good example of this.

How does Germany regulate working in extreme heat? 

By law in Germany, employers are responsible for creating a safe environment for their workers. This means that they should try and keep the temperature below 26C at all times and are legally obliged to take action if the temperature goes above 30C. 

That could include putting blinds on the windows to prevent the glare of the sun, installing air conditioning systems or purchasing fans. In some cases – such as outdoor manual labour – it could also involve starting and finishing earlier in the day. 

And in really high temperatures, employers may simply decide to call the whole thing off and give their employees a ‘hitzefrei’ day – basically a heat-induced day off – to go and cool down in a lake. However, business owners are generally given free rein to decide how hot is too hot in this instance (except in the case of vulnerable workers). 

READ ALSO: Hitzefrei: Is it ever legally too hot to go to work or school in Germany?

Do the heat rules apply to ‘home office?’

Unfortunately not. In most cases in Germany, the company isn’t directly involved in setting up the workspace for an employee that works from home, aside from possibly providing a laptop or phone for remote use. 

“The occupational health and safety regulations regarding room temperature do not apply in this case,” labour law expert Meike Brecklinghaus told German business publication T3N. “This is because the employer does not have direct access to the employee’s workplace and in this respect cannot take remedial action.”

That means that on hot days, it’s the employee’s own responsibility to make sure the environment is suitable for working in. 

woman works from home in Germany

A woman works in her living room at home. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Naupold

One duty employers do have, however, is to instruct their workers about the best way to set up a healthy work environment at home, for example by giving guidance on how to regulate the temperature. 

“In the end, it is the employee’s responsibility to maintain his or her workplace in a condition in which he or she can perform his or her work without the threat of health impairments,” Brecklinghaus explained.

What can home office workers do in hot weather?

There are plenty of ways to keep flats cooler in the summer months, including purchasing your own fan, keeping curtains or blinds drawn and ventilating the rooms in the evening or early morning when the weather is cooler.

However, if heat is really becoming a problem, it’s a good idea to communicate this to your employer. This is especially important if you have a health condition that makes it more dangerous to work in hot weather. 

In some cases, you might be able to negotiate for the employer to pay for the purchase of a fan or mobile air conditioner as goodwill gesture. If possible, you could also arrange to travel to the office where the temperature should be better regulated.

Another option for early birds or night owls is to arrange more flexible working hours so you can avoid sweltering at your desk in the midday sun, although this of course depends on operational factors. 

READ ASO: Jobs in Germany: Should foreign workers join a union?