Friday, March 8, 2013

Common Myths About the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

During my time working for multiple employers, participating in discussions on HR Toolbox, and attending college courses, I have run across several employment-law related myths that address issues such as overtime, time away from work, and schedule changes. While these myths are excellent examples of fair and equitable employment practices, employers are not required by law to implement them.

Overtime Myths 

"My employer is required to give me 24 hours' notice of mandatory overtime."
Modified from "Time is Money" by Tax Credits CC By 2.0
This myth is one that I've heard frequently during my time in the workforce and, for the most part, is wrong. Federal law does not require employers to give employees any notice before requiring employees to work overtime. However, collective bargaining agreements, other employment contracts, and regulations in certain industries require a few employers to give employees at least 24 hours' notice of mandatory overtime.
"Federal law restricts how many hours my employer can make me work a week."
Having worked for 70+ hours a week against my will, I wish this was true. Unless you are under the age of 16, are working under a collective bargaining agreement or other employment contract, or you work in an industry that is regulated (like mining or truck driving); Federal law does not restrict the number of hours that your employer requires you to work in a week. However, some state laws do restrict the number of hours that employees in certain industries work in a week. If you think that you may work in one of those industries, you might want to check with your state's labor office. Check even if you are sure, because I have seen some pretty bizarre exceptions in some states' laws.
"My employer is required to pay me double time for working holidays and weekends."
Sorry, but this is another myth. The FLSA does not require employers to pay nonexempt employees (employees who receive an hourly wage) double time for working holidays and weekends. However, employees do have to pay you time and a half if your hours exceed 40 per week, and collective bargaining agreements may require employers to pay union workers double time for working holidays and weekends.
"Soup" by Damian Gadal
CC by 2.0

Time Away From Work Myths

"My employer has to allow me 8 hours in between shifts."
It's a nice thought, but the FLSA does not mandate it; however certain regulated industries do require employers to take steps to ensure that their employees are well-rested; it's usually considered a safety issue. Some state laws require employers in specific industries to allow employees a certain number of hours' "downtime" in between shifts, and collective bargaining agreements or employment contracts may stipulate that employees are allowed some "downtime" in between shifts.
"My employer is required to give me two 10- or 15-minute breaks, and a 30-minute lunch break if I work 8 hours or more."
Depending on where you work, this may or may not be a myth. There are states with laws that address this issue. Usually these these laws are industry-specific (and sometimes weird) Also, collective bargaining agreements or other employment contracts may stipulate break schedules. The FLSA does not have a law that requires employers to offer employees regularly scheduled breaks, but OSHA requires employers to allow employees access to restroom facilities. Having said that, I do not recommend using the facilities for "unauthorized" meal breaks. If you have a medical condition that requires you to eat on a regular schedule (such as diabetes), you should notify your employer of this if you aren't given a meal break because you may be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Schedule Change Myths

"" by Michael Caroe Andersen CC By 2.0
Last, but not least, I've seen some questions regarding schedule changes in the HR forums I frequent.
"My boss changed my schedule for tomorrow, and waited until the end of my shift to notify me. Can s/he do that?"
"My boss said I had to come in early tomorrow, but I have plans. Doesn't my employer have to notify me of schedule changes in advance?"
In most situations, your boss can change your schedule in order to meet business needs without giving any advance notice; unless there is a stipulation in the collective bargaining agreement or employment contract that states otherwise. It is not against the law to be inconsiderate or a victim of poor scheduling.

What Now?

These scenarios are unfair to employees who aren't in regulated industries and who aren't protected by collective bargaining agreements, but they are legal. To make matters worse, most states and employers are "at-will," which means that your employer can fire you for any legal reason or no reason at all. Depending upon the employer you may be shown some empathy and given some latitude, or you may be shown to the door if you speak up.

Most employers understand that forcing employees to work 70+ hours a week, or work back-to-back shifts, for an extended period of time will decrease employee morale and productivity while some employers are clueless. Logic dictates that if an employer expects an employee to be punctual and present, then the employee is going to need some notice of schedule changes so that s/he can reschedule personal appointments. Again, some employers understand this while other employers haven't gotten the memo. In some cases these changes are temporary, and things go back to normal after a month or two. In other cases this is the norm, and employees are told to "put up and shut up," or leave. This just goes to show that the law isn't always fair, and what's fair isn't always the law.

Knowledge is Power

"Rosie the Riveter" poster from
the U.S. National Archives
Now that you know that this behavior is legal in most cases, you can decide how you want to respond to your unique situation. For more information, you can check out the U.S. Department of Labor's website, or you can look up specific laws for your state by going to the Department of Labor's list of state offices' websites. 

As always, feel free to leave a comment below if I can be of any assistance or if I need to correct any errors.


  1. Charity, thanks for dispelling the work laws because I ran into this situations a lot.

    As a federal employee I agree with most of them. However, as you also state the laws can differ according to unions regulations.

    As a federal correctional worker, I belonged to one of the largest federal unions around, AFGE.

    We were reminded very often by our employers that they do not have to give you 24 hours notice of mandatory over time.

    We were mandated to work OT at least once a month sometimes.

    On the other side our union was effective in getting us a 8 hour rest between shifts. You could voluntarily give up that time frame, but it was at your risk.

    Great points.

    1. Michael, while my experience with unions is indirect, a couple of unions in this area do stipulate 24 hours' notice of mandatory overtime in their collective bargaining agreements. One union limited the amount of overtime that employees could work in a month; some employees liked this, while other employees would have been content to work as much overtime as they could.

      Also, it is common for non-union employers in my area to give 24 hours' notice of mandatory overtime, and give employees 8 hours in between shifts. Many employers have implemented these practices, which is probably why some employees assume it is the law; especially in at-will employment states where employees expect employers to follow the word of the law rather than show an interest in employee welfare and morale.

      Thanks for commenting, Michael.


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