Know the law on what’s considered paid and unpaid on-call time

Electronic technicians for Oklahoma Gas & Electric were required to monitor pagers and home computers while they were on call nights and weekends.

Even though they had to check their home computers every 15 minutes, employees were paid only when they actually responded to alarms, which occurred about three times a night. It took about 45 minutes to respond to each alarm via computer, and workers were paid at least one hour for each alarm. Rarely did they get more than five hours of uninterrupted sleep a night.

Three workers sued, arguing that they should be paid for all of their on-call time. A federal court agreed they were entitled to a total of 15 hours overtime per weekday and 24 hours per Saturday and Sunday that they worked, for two years.

Typically, on-call time doesn’t count as paid work time. But in this case, the court said, the company put such a heavy burden on workers by tethering them to their computers that the duties interfered with their personal activities. Because the time was spent “predominantly for the employer’s benefit,” they were entitled to round-the-clock compensation. (Pabst v. Oklahoma Gas & Electric Co., No. 99-6108 and 99-6150, 10th Cir., 2000)

Advice: If you have an on-call policy, make sure employees can still perform personal activities during on-call time. You risk incurring 24/7 liability if on-call responsibilities dominate the employee’s personal life. Also, make sure the technology you provide works correctly so they don’t need to be tied to the job. In this case, the technicians’ pagers were only 70 percent reliable, which forced them to remain close to home to monitor alarms.

Payroll Handbook D

On-call: To pay or not to pay

Whether you must pay workers who are on-call depends largely on how much you restrict their activities.
On-site, on-call: Labor Department regulations say that on-call workers should be paid for their time if they’re required to remain on the employer’s premises or so close to it that they cannot use the time for their own purposes.
Off-site, on-call: If on-call workers aren’t confined to one place but only need to leave word on how they can be reached, the hours spent on-call typically aren’t considered working time. Obviously, employees must be paid for any on-call time when they’re called to duty.