When must you pay for employees’ ‘on-call’ time?

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in Human Resources

Issue: Many employers trip over the issue of when to pay on-call workers.

Risk: One mistake can result in big damages, forcing you to pay several workers for years of unpaid on-call time.

Action: Weigh how much you're interfering with employee's private life. Consult your attorney if you have doubts.

The key to deciding whether employees should be paid for "on-call" time boils down to whether that time is spent more for the company's benefit or the employees' benefit and just how much the job interferes with the employees' private lives.

For example, if a worker must stay home and check his computer every 20 minutes, he can't do much else, so you need to pay for the whole time he's on call. If on-call workers aren't tethered to one place, but are required only to leave word where they'll be (or carry a cell phone), the hours spent on call aren't considered working time.

Finally, when nonexempt employees are on site, remember that you must pay them for short breaks or rest periods of 20 minutes or less. Meal periods of 30 minutes or more are not considered work time if the employee is completely relieved of duty.

Recent case: While on call, firefighters in Easley, S.C., had to wear radios but were able to pursue personal activities away from home. Three firefighters sued under the Fair Labor Standards Act, claiming they should be paid for on-call shifts. A federal appeals court tossed out their case, saying the firefighters were "waiting to be engaged," and weren't confined or prevented from conducting other activities. (Whitten v. City of Easley, 4th Cir., No. 02-1445, 2003)

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