woman on work call

Being on-call can often feel like you’re in a state of limbo, especially on the weekends when your personal time intersects with professional responsibilities. Employees who find themselves tethered to their phones or emails, waiting for a potential work call, may wonder about the legalities of compensation for this standby time. While you’re not actively working, there is a question of whether this time is compensable under employment law. This dilemma raises crucial questions about the rights of workers and the obligations of employers in the context of on-call duties.

What Is On-Call Time?

On-call time, in the employment world, refers to periods when an employee is not actively working but is required to be available to work if called upon. The crucial aspect of on-call status is availability; the employee must be ready to engage in work duties, often within a set amount of time. This state of readiness means personal activities can be limited, as one must remain within reach of communication tools or even within a certain distance from the workplace.

The complexities of on-call time hinge on the degree of freedom an employee retains during these periods. If an employee can go about their day relatively unrestricted, the on-call time is often considered non-compensable. However, if the conditions are such that the worker is significantly constrained and cannot freely use the time for their own purposes, it may legally qualify as paid working time. The thin line between these scenarios is where understanding the nuances of on-call time becomes crucial for both employers and employees.

Legal Criteria for Compensable On-Call Time

The legal determination of whether on-call time should be compensated hinges on the concept of “engaged to wait” versus “waiting to be engaged.” According to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), if an employee is engaged to wait, meaning their freedom is considerably restricted while on-call, they are often deemed to be working and thus eligible for compensation. Conversely, if an employee is merely waiting to be engaged, which implies they are free to use their time for their own purposes while on-call, their time may not be compensable. This assessment often looks at the extent to which an employee can engage in personal activities during the on-call period.

Courts will evaluate several factors to determine the restrictiveness of on-call conditions, such as the required response time when a call comes in, the frequency of calls, and any geographical limitations imposed on the on-call employee. They also consider the practical ability of the employee to trade shifts or otherwise exercise control over their on-call time. These criteria come from a series of court cases and Department of Labor opinions that have shaped the current understanding of what constitutes compensable on-call time.

Employer Practices and Policies

Employer practices and policies around on-call time can vary significantly from one organization to another. Some employers may offer a clear stipulation in their employment contracts, defining on-call expectations and compensation, if any, for such periods. Others might operate on more informal policies, relying on industry norms or internal precedents, which can leave employees unsure about their rights and entitlements. It’s essential for employees to review their contracts and company handbooks, and if necessary, seek clarification from management to fully understand the specifics of their on-call obligations.

State and Federal Laws Governing On-Call Pay

The Fair Labor Standards Act sets out the principles for minimum wage and overtime, and it defines compensable work hours, which can include certain on-call periods. Under the FLSA, the determination of whether on-call time is paid hinges on the aforementioned conditions of employee freedom during these hours. It considers whether the employee can use time effectively for their own purposes or if the employer’s restrictions are so intrusive that the employee is deemed to be working while on-call.

At the state level, laws can vary, with some states implementing regulations that are more stringent than federal requirements. For instance, California has specific laws that address on-call pay, stipulating stricter guidelines for compensation. Employees must, therefore, be aware of both federal and state laws to understand their rights fully.

What You Can Do If You Believe You’re Owed On-Call Pay

If you suspect that you’re owed on-call pay, the first step is to document all the on-call periods, noting any work performed or restrictions experienced during these times. With this documentation in hand, approach your employer to discuss the issue, armed with specific examples and clear records. If the matter isn’t resolved satisfactorily at this level, it may be time to seek legal advice. An attorney specializing in employment law can provide guidance on the nuances of on-call compensation and assist in asserting your rights, potentially including filing a claim with the appropriate labor department or pursuing legal action.

Questions About On-Call Pay? The Lore Law Firm Can Help

Understanding your rights regarding on-call pay can be complex, but ensuring you are fairly compensated is crucial. If you’re facing uncertainties about on-call compensation, you don’t have to deal with them by yourself. The Lore Law Firm can help assess your situation and your right to fair pay. Please contact us by completing our free and confidential online client intake form and let’s make sure your work and time are respected and rewarded.

Michael Lore is the founder of The Lore Law Firm. For over 25 years, his law practice and experience extend from representing individuals in all aspects of labor & employment law, with a concentration in class and collective actions seeking to recover unpaid back overtime wages, to matters involving executive severance negotiations, non-compete provisions and serious personal injury (work and non-work related). He has handled matters both in the state and federal courts nationwide as well as via related administrative agencies. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Michael by using our chat functionality.