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On-Call Pay Requirements under the FLSA: What are the Rules for On-Call Shifts?

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), enacted in 1938, remains a cornerstone of US labor law, setting standards for minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and youth employment. Among the multifaceted aspects of the FLSA, the rules and regulations surrounding on-call pay and shifts have significant implications for both employers and employees.

The FLSA distinguishes between “active” and “inactive” on-call time. Active on-call time refers to periods when an employee is required to remain on the employer’s premises or be available to respond to calls and perform work duties. Inactive on-call time refers to periods when an employee is not required to be on-site but must be available to respond if called upon.

On-call time can be categorized into two types: active and inactive on-call time, each with its own set of governing principles. In this article, we will delve into the specifics of on-call shift requirements under the FLSA and provide examples of both active and inactive on-call time.

On-Call Shifts and Pay under FLSA

The FLSA’s provisions on on-call pay primarily hinge on whether the on-call time is considered ‘work time.’ In general terms, the FLSA mandates that employees should be paid for all the time they are required to be on the employer’s premises or at a prescribed workplace. However, the Act does not clearly define the rules for on-call time, creating ambiguity. The responsibility then falls on the courts to interpret and apply the FLSA’s requirements based on each unique case scenario.

If employees are required to be on-site or must remain readily available to perform work duties during their on-call time, then that time is generally considered compensable working time. In such cases, employees must be paid at least the applicable minimum wage for the entire duration of their active on-call shifts, including any overtime if they exceed 40 hours in a workweek.

However, the FLSA does not require employers to compensate employees for inactive on-call time. If employees are free to engage in personal activities during their on-call period and have significant restrictions on their activities lifted only when responding to a call, the time is typically considered non-compensable.

If an employee’s activities are significantly restricted during inactive on-call time (e.g., they cannot leave a specific geographic area or engage in certain personal activities), that time may be considered compensable. The determination depends on the extent of the restrictions and the degree to which they limit the employee’s freedom.

Active and Inactive On-Call Time

On-call time falls into two categories: active and inactive on-call time. Active on-call time is time during which an employee is required to remain on the employer’s premises or so close thereto that they cannot use the time effectively for their own purposes. This time is generally considered work time and should be compensated accordingly. For instance, a firefighter waiting at the station for an emergency call, or a receptionist required to remain at the front desk during lunch hours would be considered as engaged in active on-call time.

On the other hand, inactive on-call time refers to situations where the employee can engage in personal activities but must be available to be called into work if necessary. This time is not always considered work time and is not always compensable. An IT professional who must be available to respond to network issues during weekends but is not restricted in their personal activities would be an example of inactive on-call time.

When determining whether on-call time is compensable, courts usually examine several factors:

  1. The geographic restrictions on the employee’s movements,
  2. The frequency of calls during on-call periods,
  3. The ability to trade on-call responsibilities with another employee,
  4. The degree of personal activities the employee can engage in during on-call periods.

For instance, if an employee is required to respond to calls within a very short period or must stay within a limited geographic area, this may prevent the employee from using the time effectively for personal purposes, and thus the on-call time may be considered work time.

Examples of Active On-Call Times

Here are some examples of active on-call times:

  • On-site standby: Employees are required to remain on the employer’s premises during their on-call shift. They must be physically present and ready to perform work duties if called upon. This often applies to professions like security guards, maintenance personnel, or emergency response teams.
  • Immediate response requirement: Employees are expected to be available to respond to calls or requests for work within a short timeframe, such as 15 or 30 minutes. They may need to be accessible and ready to report to work promptly, either at the employer’s premises or at a designated location.
  • Limited geographic area: Employees are restricted in their movements and must remain within a specific geographic area during their on-call time. This can apply to certain professions where the response time is critical, such as healthcare professionals or field technicians.
  • Specific duties during on-call time: Employees may be assigned specific tasks or responsibilities during their on-call shift, even if they are not actively performing work. For example, they may be responsible for monitoring systems, conducting regular checks, or being available for consultations or guidance.

Examples of Inactive On-Call Times

Here are some examples of inactive on-call times:

  • Standby shifts: Employees are required to be available to respond to calls or requests for work but are not required to be physically present at the workplace. They may be at home or any location of their choosing, as long as they can be reached if needed.
  • Pagers or cell phone availability: Employees carry a company-provided cell phone and are expected to be reachable during their on-call period. They can engage in personal activities as long as they are accessible to receive calls or respond promptly.
  • Restrictions on personal activities: Employees may have some restrictions on their personal activities during their on-call time, such as not being able to consume alcohol or travel a significant distance. However, as long as the restrictions do not overly burden the employee or significantly limit their freedom, the time is generally considered inactive on-call time.
  • Scheduled on-call rotations: Employees are assigned specific on-call shifts on a rotational basis, but they are not required to perform any work unless called upon. During their scheduled on-call time, they can engage in personal activities but must be prepared to respond if needed.


Understanding the nuances of on-call shifts and pay regulations under the FLSA is critical for both employers and employees to ensure fair practices and compensation. The categorization into active and inactive on-call time serves as a valuable guideline in determining the compensability of on-call time, though individual circumstances often dictate the final ruling. As such, both parties should be aware of these distinctions and the factors that courts consider when deciding such matters.

Remember, the objective of the FLSA and the laws governing on-call time is to strike a balance between the needs of businesses and the rights of workers. Understanding the intricacies of on-call time – whether active or inactive – and how it should be compensated is a significant step towards maintaining this balance, ensuring the workforce remains productive, content, and fairly compensated for their time and effort.


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