Can My Employer Force Me to Be on Call?

Some employees see on-call shifts as a positive opportunity for extra hours and more pay. Others would prefer to skip it altogether. Dropping everything to go to work when your employer calls can be a major disruption to your life.

As employment lawyers, we often hear employees express frustrations about the unpredictability of on-call shifts. Employees often wonder: When can my employer force me to be on call? Should I be paid extra for on-call shifts? Can I receive compensation for the time when I’m waiting to work?

This blog post will shed light on employees’s common questions about on-call work.

What Does On-Call Work Involve?

Being “on call” means an employee can perform work at their employer’s request. On-call can also be called “standby” duty. 

On-call work is usually associated with jobs involving emergency or unpredictable situations, such as doctors, EMTs, firefighters, and IT professionals. 

Being on-call for work can mean different things depending on the profession. 

In some professions, employees are always expected to be on-call. In others, employees are assigned on-call duty occasionally or rotate on-call shifts over a given period.

Sometimes, employees must stay at their physical workplace during an on-call shift to be ready immediately when needed, which is often the case for emergency responders and medical professionals.

In other professions, employees may have more freedom of movement while on-call. For example, many technical support professionals or utility repair workers have regular on-call shifts during nights and weekends.

Your employer does not necessarily expect you to be at the office during these times. You must answer the phone when your boss calls and be ready to come in and start work if notified. 

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Can My Employer Force Me to Be on Call In California?

Your employer can’t force you to sign up for a shift. However, they can make it a requirement for your continued employment.

If you accept a position in an industry where these shifts are the norm, an employer will expect you to do your share of on-call time. Your employment contract or collective bargaining agreement should detail your employer’s expectations around on-call availability. 

So long as your boss isn’t breaking any employment laws, they can ask you to be available to work outside regular business hours. 

Take note: it’s considered illegal discrimination for your employer to assign on-call shifts based on protected identity characteristics like race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or citizenship status.

Employers are also not allowed to use on-call assignments as a form of retaliation to punish an employee for reporting wrongdoing in the workplace. If you’re concerned that you’re the target of illegal discrimination or retaliation, contact an attorney immediately.

Are There Special Wage Laws for Being on Call for Work?

Under state and federal labor laws, employers must pay employees for each hour that they perform work. Your right to compensation starts as soon as you clock in to begin work—no matter what time of day.

When your employer calls you to work from standby, the same wage laws apply as if you were working a shift during business hours. You can expect pay at your regular rate.

If you log more than 40 work hours in a week because you’re called in unexpectedly, you should expect overtime pay. Generally, the time employees spend waiting to hear that work is available or their services are needed is not considered valid working time. 

However, some situations exist when employees must legally be paid for their time on call. Under the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act, employers must pay nonexempt employees for on-call time if they must stay on the employer’s premises—or so close to them that the employee can’t use their time as they wish. Because employers restrict an employee’s movement and activities in these situations, the law says this waiting time counts as valid working hours.

Be aware: the FLSA’s rules for restricted on-call pay only apply to nonexempt employees. If you’re an exempt employee, you don’t have the right to receive extra compensation for hours spent on-call, no matter how restricted your movements are. 

How Do I Know If I’m Entitled to On-Call Pay?

Whether an employee is entitled to compensation generally depends on the restrictions they face when they’re waiting to work. Specific factors that can impact whether your on-call hours qualify for compensation include:

  • Your location while on call. If your employer requires you to stay at your work site or within a mile of your work, you’re more likely entitled to on-call pay.
  • Your behavior while on call. Are you free to pursue whatever activities you like while on call, e.g., drinking alcohol? Or are you required to be in uniform and have special equipment on hand while you’re waiting to work?
  • How often your employer calls. The more frequently you field calls demanding your response, the more likely your time qualifies as work.
  • Your response to a call. Are you expected to come to work immediately after receiving notification from your employer? The more flexible your boss is about where and how soon you report to work while on-call, the less likely you’re entitled to pay.

The law determines whether an employee’s on-call time counts as work hours on a case-by-case basis. Contact a California employment lawyer if you’re unsure whether your on-call time is restricted enough to warrant pay. An attorney familiar with state and federal labor laws and regulations can evaluate your case and help you understand if you’re receiving the compensation you’re legally owed. 

What Should I Do If I’m Denied On-Call Pay?

It’s considered wage theft for an employer to withhold any legally earned compensation from employees. If your employer is withholding your pay, an employment attorney can help you take action to recover your lost wages. 

At Starpoint Law, we know that employees often assume they can’t afford the help of a legal professional when facing problems at work. We offer free one-on-one consultation services for California employees dealing with wage disputes.

Our team was founded with the mission of helping level the playing field between employers and employees in workplace conflicts. To date, we’ve helped recover hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation for our clients. Contact us online or by phone today to learn more about how we can help you.

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Starpoint Injury Law Staff

Starpoint Law was founded on a number of core principles that allow us to help our clients and develop deep and meaningful relationships. If you have suffered injuries or facing an issue with your employer, reach out to our legal team and we can sit down for a free consultation and start the process immediately.

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