In some professions, employers require a certain number of workers to be “on call” and available to work with limited notice. This might mean carrying a company pager or phone after your shift has ended or agreeing to be available to come into the office if needed.
Sometimes, these are life-or-death situations, such as a surgeon who needs to be available for emergency surgeries. More commonly though, employees who need to be on call might have expertise or troubleshooting skills that could suddenly be needed to help keep a business running. IT professionals, for example, may need to come in on short notice to address computer problems that have slowed or stopped production.
When Employees Are Paid for On-Call Time
Just because you are on call does not necessarily mean that you will be paid. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), enacted in 1938, defined the federal guidelines that govern whether you will be paid for on-call hours. The underlying question that determines if you will be compensated is whether the time you spend on call qualifies as “hours worked” when calculating overtime and minimum wage.
According to the Department of Labor (DOL), time spent on call does not necessarily count as time at work. For example, the DOL’s guidelines state that an employee who is not required to remain at the worksite and who is able to use their time for their own purposes is probably not “working” while on call. (Although any time they spend answering calls would most likely be considered work time.)
When employees make themselves available in their actual office or workplace for on-call assignments, employers must pay them for the time they spend there. Because these on-call hours are spent in restricted conditions where an employee cannot use his time for personal purposes, this time is considered payable “hours worked.”
Examples of these types of employees include hospital staff who must stay at the hospital during their on-call hours and maintenance workers who must remain nearby their facilities.
Employees covered by employment contracts or bargaining agreements that stipulate pay for being on call are entitled to compensation for the hours they spend on call.
When Employers Don't Have to Pay
The situation becomes more ambiguous when an employee is on call at home. Employers will generally view this time as hours spent in “non-restricted conditions,” where employees are free to use their time however they wish.
Employers can require certain things of at-home, on-call employees—that they are accessible by phone or pager, for example, or that they refrain from drinking alcohol. Nevertheless, this time does not qualify as “hours worked” and will not necessarily be compensated.
If, however, employees are prevented from using this time at home for their own purposes, they would need to be compensated. For example, if the frequency of calls prevents one from mowing the lawn or attending a child’s event, this would have to be paid. Time spent responding to calls (traveling to and from the workplace) also counts as payable time worked.
In general, when employees are exempt employees, employers are not required to pay them for being available. Wondering if you’re an exempt employee? Your pay stub may provide answers. But in general, you are likely exempt if you receive a salary instead of hourly pay. In this case, being on call may be considered part of your responsibilities as a salaried employee and will not be compensated with additional pay.
State Laws Regarding On-Call Pay
As well as reviewing the Department of Labor information, check to see if your state has its own standards about when employees must be paid for on-call time. Many states have their own minimum wage and overtime laws separate from the federal government’s.
Employers must follow whichever minimum wage/overtime law—state or federal—that provides the greatest benefits to their personnel.
Some companies may provide on-call pay beyond what is required by law—to see if you qualify, check your employee handbook, speak to a supervisor, or contact the human resources department.
If a company has a policy that pays for time spent being on call, it must cover all employees who are covered by the policy.
The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law.