On-Call Time: Are You Entitled to Be Paid?

You may be entitled to compensation, even for hours you don't spend working, if you must be on call for your job.

By , J.D.

On-call time is time when an employee is not actually performing job duties, but must be available to work if called upon. For example, a trauma nurse who must carry a pager and return to the hospital immediately if paged is on call, as is a computer technician who must respond to help calls over the weekend.

Even if you're on call, you aren't necessarily entitled to be paid for your time. Your rights depend on where you have to be and the restrictions placed on you, among other things.

If You Have to Stay at Work

An employee who must stay at the workplace waiting for work is entitled to be paid for that time. For example, an employee who repairs appliances and waits in the office to be called out on a job is entitled to be paid for that time, as is a secretary who does a crossword in the office while waiting for an assignment.

If You Don't Have to Stay at Work

Employees who don't have to stay at work are entitled to pay for hours over which the employees have little or no control and which they cannot spend as they wish. If an employee is actually called and has to work, the employee is always entitled to pay for that actual work time.

As for the hours that are spent on call and not actually working, the more restrictions an employer places on an employee who is on call, the more likely that employee is entitled to be paid. Here are some of the factors courts consider:

  • How many calls an employee gets while on call. The more calls an employee has to respond to, the more likely he or she is entitled to pay, particularly if any of the calls require the employee to report to work or give advice or guidance over the phone. An employee who is frequently interrupted like this would have difficulty planning and using his or her time as desired.
  • How long an employee has to respond after a call. If an employer requires employees to report in immediately after being paged, for example, such employees have a better argument that they should be paid for their time.
  • Where the employee can go while on call. Employees who must stay within a limited distance from work are more likely to be entitled to compensation.
  • What the employee may do while on call. If an employer sets a lot of rules for on-call workers, such as a ban on alcohol or a requirement that they respond quickly and in person to calls (which can be difficult if the employee is at the gym or taking the kids to school), the employer may have to pay for this time.

Learn more about Wages and Hours.

Can Your Employer Require You to Be On Call?

If you have an employment contract or you work under a collective bargaining agreement, the terms of your employment—including any on-call time—should be spelled out in writing.

Otherwise, your employer is generally free to require you to work on-call time as long as it pays you for any compensable time as described above. Of course, employers may not assign on-call time in a manner that discriminates against any protected class, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. Nor can an employer require on-call time in retaliation against an employee who reported a safety concern, filed a harassment complaint, or exercised another legal right.

What Is Your Pay Rate When You're On Call?

The pay rate for hourly employees who perform compensable work while on call is their ordinary hourly rate, unless they have exceeded the weekly overtime threshold.

In addition, many states have their own rules on how on-call employees must be paid. In California, for example, employees on unrestricted on-call time who respond to a call to work must receive the greater of:

  • their regular hourly rate, including time spent commuting to and from work, or
  • two hours' pay.

Examples of On-Call Employees

Below are some of the most common occupations that may require on-call time. These roles often require individuals to be available outside of regular working hours to handle urgent situations or provide essential services:

  • doctors and nurses
  • security personnel
  • firefighters
  • crisis counselors
  • airline pilots
  • flight attendants
  • tow truck operators
  • veterinarians
  • electricians
  • plumbers
  • network engineers, and
  • IT support workers.

Getting Legal Help

If you aren't being paid for your time on call, consider consulting with an employment lawyer. Depending on your circumstances and how courts in your state interpret these rules, it may be perfectly legal for your employer not to pay you.

On the other hand, your employer may be breaking the law by failing to pay you for every hour you work.

An experienced lawyer should be able to quickly assess the facts of your situation and let you know whether you have a strong case -- and if so, how best to protect your rights.

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