(CN) – A retired German firefighter can collect $21,000 for vacation time he didn’t use while out on sick leave, Europe’s highest court ruled Thursday, finding that EU law trumps national policies.
Georg Neidel filed a claim with the city of Frankfurt after a medical condition forced his retirement from the city’s firefighting force in 2009, after nearly 40 years on the force. He claimed that the EU’s Working Time Directive, which mandates that all member states give workers at least four weeks of annual paid vacation, required that he be paid for 86 days of unused vacation time, amounting to about $21,000.
As of June 2007, Neidel had been “unfit for service on medical grounds,” according to the court.
Frankfurt rejected his request on the grounds that German civil and public service law makes no provision to compensate workers for unused leave. The city also maintained that retirement does not count as termination of employment under the law.
Frankfurt’s administrative court referred the case to the EU’s Court of Justice, asking whether the Working Time Directive applies to civil servants and if that law’s allowance for pay in lieu of unused leave extends to time beyond the EU’s four-week minimum yearly vacation. The Luxembourg court ruled Thursday that the directive does apply to both public and private sector workers, to encourage health and safety, and that the law is necessarily broad in scope.
“Any person who pursues activities that are real and genuine, to the exclusion of activities on such a small scale as to be regarded as purely marginal and ancillary, must be regarded as a ‘worker,'” the decision states.
“The essential feature of an employment relationship is, according to that case law, that for a certain period of time a person performs services for and under the direction of another person in return for which he receives remuneration.”
Europe’s directive also makes no distinction between reasons for separation from employment in its mandate that workers receive payment for unused vacation time upon termination. Furthermore, EU law precludes national law and “must be interpreted as meaning that a public servant is entitled, on retirement, to an allowance in lieu of paid annual leave not taken because he was prevented from working by sickness,” the court said.
The mandate does not preclude any national law that grants workers more than four weeks’ annual leave, according to the court, which added that member state have discretion over anything in excess of the four-week mandate.
Paid annual leave is a fundamental human right under EU law. Therefore, any national law that permits the carryover of unused time from one year into the next must “ensure that the worker can have, if need be, rest periods that may be staggered, planned in advance and available in the longer term and must be substantially longer than the reference period in respect of which it is granted,” the court said.
In Neidel’s case, because his sickness prevented him from taking his annual leave several years in a row, the directive precludes the German law that required him to take unused vacation within nine months or lose it, the court concluded.
The Court of Justice returned the case to Frankfurt’s administrative court for its final judgment.