Many professions require that an employee work on-call hours, in addition to that employee’s regular hours. Surprisingly, many employers have a policy of not compensating the employee at all during the on-call hours, even if working the on-call shifts is a strict condition of their employment. This has caused a lot of debate over whether these employers are violating state labor laws. Until recently, there were no on-point court decisions that prevented employers from taking advantage of their workers in this way.
However, in January of 2015, the California Supreme Court opinion found that in certain circumstances on-call employees must be compensated. Although, the case focused on security guards required to work on-call hours without pay, the decision will inevitably have wide-spread impact on other professions that frequently require their employees to maintain on-call hours for less pay or no compensation at all. Professions that may be impacted include:
- Group home workers, personal attendants, direct care staff
- Live-in domestic workers
- Agricultural employees
- Private contractors who patrol parks
- Cleanup workers after environmental disasters
- Ship engineers
- Utility workers
- Electrical technicians
- Tug boat pilots
- Information technologists
- Media personnel
The class action lawsuit, brought by 1,500 security guards, alleged that their employer’s policy regarding on-call compensation, as well as sleep-time rules associated with hours worked, violated California minimum wage and overtime laws. The guards were required to maintain on-call hours for 8 hours without pay, as well as actively patrol with pay for 8 hours, totaling a 16 hour work day. Additionally, on the weekends, the guards were required to patrol for 16 hours with pay and maintain 8 hours of on-call hours without pay, totaling a 24 hour work day. They were not permitted to count sleep-time as part of the 24 hour shift.
The plaintiff’s argument regarding on-call hours was based on the fact that the hours were mandatory and a guard could not leave the premises, even for a personal emergency. They were required to stay on-site in an employee designated trailer. There were many other restrictions the court considered, including a rule that children, alcohol and dogs are prohibited. Adult visitors were allowed only if approved by management. The guards received no compensation for the on-call hours they were forced to maintain.
The other allegation involved the employer’s policy that sleep-time hours were excluded from the required 24 hour weekend shifts. Thus, the employee could not count the hours they slept when considering the number of on-call hours they were forced to work without pay.
After the case working its way through the state courts, the California Supreme Court ended the seven year debate and ruled that both of the company’s policies were violations of minimum wage and overtime regulations. Therefore, the security guards were entitled to pay for the on-call hours they performed. Additionally, the security guards that worked overnight shifts for more than 24 hours must be paid for their sleep time, under certain conditions. Relying heavily on the amount of control the employer had over the employees’ movements, the following factors will be considered in any other case brought by employees against their employers alleging violations of labor laws:
- Whether there was an on-premises requirement
- Whether there were excessive geographical restrictions on employee’s movements
- Whether the frequency of calls was unduly restrictive
- Whether a fixed time limit for responses was unduly restrictive
- Whether the on-call employee could easily trade on-call responsibilities
- Whether the pager could ease restrictions
- Whether the employee had actually engaged in personal activities during on-call time
Continuing California’s trend of enforcing labor laws and protecting workers rights, this decision expands employment protections in California. Federal Law continues to afford fewer protections, but California has an absolute right to increase wage and labor law rights, as does any other state in the U.S. (although states must not decrease federal protections). Accordingly, any employee from the above professions, or any profession that involves on-call and sleep hour compensation, can now consider bringing a lawsuit and possibly being compensated for their employer’s abuse of the law.