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Is Mandatory Overtime Legal?

Like so many areas of the law, it depends on the specifics of your work situation.

Yes, your boss can tell you that you need to work overtime. They can also legally fire you for saying "no."

But any mandatory overtime request needs to fall under the rules and regulations for your state and under federal law.

What Is Mandatory Overtime?

Mandatory overtime is when your boss makes you work more than 40 hours in a week. Unfortunately, your boss might approach this situation without:

  • Asking for your approval
  • Asking if you'd like to work more hours
  • Letting you pick your overtime hours
  • Offering it only to employees who want more hours
  • Telling you it is okay to say "no"

Your boss may threaten to fire — or actually fire — anyone who refuses to work the overtime. Unfortunately, as long as they pay you overtime wages, this is legal to do in most situations.

Know Your Company's Policy on Overtime

When you start a job, the uglier sides of the work are not always clear. Overtime policies are sometimes confusing or made to seem trivial. Your work's overtime policy may say something like:

We cannot guarantee overtime will be available. Reasonable hours of overtime may be required from time to time. Advance notice will be provided when possible. All employees are expected to work such hours as needed.

This language can be tricky because the hours and advance notice are not defined. Companies use policies like this to keep their options open.

40 Hours Is Just the Minimum for Full-Time Employees, Not the Maximum

Technically, working 40 hours a week is a standard set by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This act does not put a maximum on how many hours you can work in a week. It simply gives 40 hours as the minimum for full-time workers.

If someone does work more than 40 hours, the FLSA also says they will be paid time and a half for their efforts. There are some employment exceptions to this rule.

Mandatory Overtime Cannot be a Safety Risk

Another regulation set in place from the FLSA is that mandatory overtime cannot create a "safety risk" for the employees. This ranges from increased tiredness to getting seriously injured on the job.

When workers are overly tired, they can make mistakes or injure others on the job, so companies need to be wary of safety risks.

Check Your State's Laws on Overtime

Be sure to check your state's specific overtime laws for any exceptions or additional rules.

As an example, New Jersey has restrictions on workers in healthcare facilities. California has a law that for every six days worked, employees need one day off without punishment. Alaska doesn't require employers to pay time and a half when the company has less than four employees.

Contracts for employment also have different rules. Whatever hours your contract states are the hours you need to work.

Know your state's laws so you can be informed if you are taken advantage of. Having a baseline of your right can help you protect yourself from working too many hours or not being paid enough.

Getting Fired for Not Working Mandatory Overtime

Say your boss tells your team everyone needs to work 50 hours in the coming weeks to handle a project. But, you have family obligations all week, so you probably want to say a polite "sorry, but I can't."

However, your boss generally has the right to fire you for not working the requested hours. There is little you can do if you are an at-will employee and your boss followed the laws of your state and regulations of your industry.

If the worst should happen and you lose your job over mandatory overtime requests, you could be denied unemployment. Your manager can claim that you denying mandatory overtime is "deliberate misconduct."

Firing an At-Will Employee

If you find yourself in this situation, you may have to accept the firing. Being an at-will employee means you can be fired at any time for any reason, as long as the reason is not based on:

There are some cases where wrongful termination lawsuits can apply. It is always a good idea to talk to an attorney during a free consultation to double check your options.

Yes, You Get Time and a Half for Overtime Pay

It is easy to calculate your pay for working mandatory overtime. If you are paid $10 an hour, then your time and a half will be $15. However, this payment is still taxed at the same rate.

It may look like you are being taxed at a higher rate simply because you are making 50% more of your pay.

Salaried employees can be asked to work mandatory overtime, and unfortunately, they don't need to be paid extra. Their hours are flexible and all contained within their salary.

Know the Laws Behind a Workweek

It is important to know what a workweek is. Make sure you aren't working beyond a typical workweek, which is:

  • One timeframe of 168 hours
  • Seven 24-hour periods in a row

Note that a workweek does not strictly mean Monday through Friday. It spans the whole week to cover weekend and night shift jobs and does not need to start on a Monday.

The only rule to a workweek is that it starts on the same day and time each week. So, you should not let your boss say your new workweek is Tuesday through the following Thursday. That would be breaking the law.

Can I Say No to Mandatory Overtime and Still Keep My Job?

It is worth talking to your manager about the reasons why you cannot work overtime. Family obligations, child care, special events, extracurricular activities, and prior commitments are all important to maintain.

Some employers may be understanding, while others may explain that they need someone who can fill the necessary hours. Depending on your situation, you and your employer might be able to come to a mutual understanding that helps both of you.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified employment attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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