Should Employees Get Paid for Idle Time at Work?

Sydney works at a small local retailer in California. It’s the early afternoon on a Friday, and there’s not much business. Sydney has just returned from a meal break when her manager tells Sydney to clock out until business is expected to pick up around 6 p.m. He says she can do whatever she wants as long as she sticks around the shop in case a customer arrives. He says she should think of it as a split shift, so she’ll be back on the clock at 6 p.m. to complete the hours she has left in her shift.

When she gets her paycheck the following week, Sydney discovers the owner didn’t pay her for the hours she spent waiting around. She also sees that the extra hours he added on to the original end of her shift were paid at her normal rate. Sydney wonders if she should have been paid for the time she was told to wait around the shop and if the extra hours she worked would have been overtime hours.

This hypothetical scenario touches on a few key areas of wage and hour law in California: waiting time at work, split shifts, and how overtime should work when an employee is waiting for something to do. Let’s examine what federal and state laws say and how they might apply to Sydney’s situation.

Waiting Time

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act – federal legislation that’s been around for the better part of a century – employees must be paid for the time they’re required to remain on duty to work or stay at their place of work.

“ … working time is not limited to the hours spent in active productive labor, but includes time given by the employee to the employer even though part of the time may be spent in idleness.” – 29 C.F.R.§778.223(b)

Even though Sydney’s manager told her she could do whatever she wanted while she was “off the clock,” his stipulation that she remains at the shop to assist unexpected customers entitles her to pay for the time she spent waiting.

Even if no customer came in – or if the boss simply told her she had to stay near the shop – little would probably change in regard to the employer’s obligation to compensate Sydney for this time. She was “engaged to wait” for something to do, and that time should have been compensated.

How Split Shifts Work in California

Split shifts are work schedules where an unpaid period is bookended by paid hours of work. In other words, it’s legal to schedule an employee for a few hours in the morning and a few more hours later in the day with a span of several unpaid hours between them.

In California, minimum wage employees are entitled to split shift premium pay, which is one hour’s worth of pay at the state or local minimum wage rate, whichever is greater. Workers making greater than minimum wage rates are also entitled to the split shift premium, but at reduced rates depending upon how much their normal rate is.

Despite Sydney’s manager suggestion that she was going on an unscheduled split shift, it’s unlikely her situation would be defined as one. It all comes down to the fact that Sydney was required to stay at work. Because Sydney’s workday was never truly split into two portions where she was free to do as she pleased in between, she wasn’t on a split shift.

How Overtime Laws Can Apply to Waiting Time

Because an employee on the clock waiting for something to do should still get paid for their time, little changes in regard to overtime regulations. According to federal and state law, California’s workers earn overtime pay at a rate of one-and-a-half times their normal rate for each hour worked beyond 40 in a workweek or eight in a workday.

Beyond extra pay, most Californians working overtime enjoy rest and meal break protections. Employees who work more than 10 hours in a day are entitled to two meal breaks of at least 30 minutes each, beginning before the end of the fifth and 10th hour of work.

The time Sydney spent waiting to be engaged in new work tasks meant that the additional hours her manager tacked onto her schedule for the day would likely have been subject to overtime regulations. If her workday went beyond 10 hours, that could also trigger additionally mandated rest and meal breaks.

It’s important to note, however, that not all of this is true for every employee – certain kinds of employment have recognized exceptions to overtime laws. If you’re unsure if your employer is breaking the law, it’s time to consult with an attorney about your situation.

Limonjyan Law Group: Aggressive Advocate for California’s Workers

Wage and hour laws in California are among the most robust and protective of employees in the United States. Your employer is accountable for ensuring that you are properly compensated for your time at work – even if you’re waiting for something to do. Your boss can’t simply require you to stay at your job without paying you.

If you’ve encountered a situation where you weren’t free to leave work and weren’t compensated for your time, reach out to Limonjyan Law Group for help. Our attorney is an aggressive advocate for our clients and can help you recover fair and just compensation for a violation of your employment rights.

Tell us about your situation during a consultation where we can learn about what happened and offer assistance. Call us at (213) 277-7444 or contact our office online to arrange a meeting with our attorney.