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Getting paid fairly: When your "time off" is not truly off

Aug. 26, 2021
It's not uncommon to ask an employee to take on some work tasks after hours. But is it OK—or even legal? Anne Nugent Guignon, MPH, RDH, CSP, takes on this complicated employment topic.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal or tax advice; instead, all information is for general information purposes only. This article contains links to both governmental and third-party websites. Such links are only for the convenience of the reader. Readers should contact their attorney, CPA, or qualified tax preparation specialist to obtain advice regarding any personal legal or tax matter. The following conversation is intended to alert dental health care workers about employment practices regarding employees being required to work during their off time.

Who wants drama in the workplace? No one!

Part one in this series discusses wages and overtime pay. Here, part two focuses on how work hours are compensated when staff members are required to use personal time for activities directly related to the dental practice. Laws governing the two scenarios discussed below are different and nuanced.

It’s easy for people to turn to social media for answers. But the responses are typically laden with emotion and do not offer accurate information, so I don’t recommend doing that. Also, doctors often shy away from confrontation and inadvertently implement policies that can create human resources nightmares.

Why not open a conversation with the doctor and management that brings solutions that comply with both federal and state laws? A proactive approach can reduce office friction and misunderstandings, and even result in actual policies that comply with the law being added to the employee handbook.

First scenario: “There’s a new rule at my office. We are each required to answer office calls on our weekends (unpaid). We get $30 for every new patient we book. The doctor is obsessed with self-improvement. He gives us homework to do at home. I have a 1-year-old child, so for me to be required to answer the phones on my weekends is a lot.” 

Second scenario: “My doctor is making everyone in the office read two books, a chapter a week. I am currently completing my BS degree and preparing to move. I barely have time for myself, my husband, and my classes, let alone time for ‘homework’ from my doctor. When I come home from work, we cook dinner, I work on statistics homework, shower, and go to sleep. I like to leave my work at work.”

On call and waiting to be engaged scenario

Imagine a dental worker’s schedule based on 36 hours of work in the clinical setting Monday through Thursday. If the business owner now requires the worker to manage business calls outside of established clinical hours, the worker is now on-call. This is where the process starts to get complicated.1,2 

If the on-call worker is free to conduct personal business while on call, the worker is waiting to be engaged. If during this wait time the worker does not take any calls or does not conduct any business, the person is not considered working, so compensation is not required. But when the on-call worker answers business calls, books appointments, or converses with a patient via phone, text, or email, the actual time spent for all these tasks is considered work.1,2,3 

According to Kara Kelley, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, a human resources expert who specializes in employment matters, there are strict definitions of wages. A non-exempt worker’s time must be compensated, but remember, the worker can be paid a different rate than the clinical wage rate. Employees are advised to keep stellar records of all time worked. Today’s technology can back up cell phone or other electronic data records. 

More about overtime 

This is where the conversation becomes more complicated and interesting. Think about the 36-hour-a-week clinical worker. If the worker spends six hours doing office administrative work at home, such as answering phone calls, fielding questions, and booking appointments, the worker now must be paid for 42 hours of work. The additional two hours are overtime pay.1,2,3 

Calculating overtime pay might appear simple, but the devil is literally in the details. Overtime pay is calculated according to the weighted average method of computing overtime pay, a complicated and exacting formula.4 

The federal Department of Labor mandates that all work must be compensated, and it further specifies that workers cannot give up their worker rights.5 Dental office workers need to be aware of the facts. To recap: very few dental office workers are exempt from overtime and the federal government requires that workers be paid. 

Required reading scenario

Just like the first scenario, details matter. The hygienist implied the dentist-owner required all employees to read books supplied by the doctor. While the discussion of the books’ content is taking place during regular office hour meetings, the doctor expects the books to be read during workers’ time off. 

According to Kelley, if the reading is not mandatory, is outside of regular work hours, and there are no repercussions if an employee chooses not to participate in the reading assignment, then the time spent reading is non-compensable.1 If non-exempt workers are required to read the books, the compensation rate can be lower than clinical wages, but time spent reading could result in overtime pay.1,2 

To further complicate the discussion, everyone reads at a different rate. One person might read 10 pages in 15 minutes, while another may need 60 minutes to complete the same material. Kelley offered several suggestions:

  • Set a specific time during the workday when workers can read the assigned materials.
  • Have the workers read the material together during a scheduled meeting time.
  • If reading is required during nonworking hours, establish a specific compensation rate for a defined period of time (i.e., a specific number of hours or minutes). 

Complicated? Yes! 

Employee morale takes a nosedive when workers feel their time is not respected. Businesses thrive when workers feel valued and fairly compensated. 

Employees who broach discussions about appropriate compensation can be labeled as a non-team player, which leads to more disenchantment on both sides. It gets even more complicated when workers are paid different rates or are told the task is mandatory but they will not be compensated.

Business owners and managers need to make sure all requests for worker time comply with federal labor laws. Some state statutes are even more nuanced than federal laws.

To avoid unnecessary drama, a wise business owner will review his or her plans with an attorney or a human resources expert who has specific training, education, and certifications in the HR arena. Attention to the details keeps the business in compliance with the law and ensures employees are treated as valuable and unique assets who help the business thrive.


1. Fact Sheet #22: Hours worked under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Wage and Hour Division. US Department of Labor website. Revised July 2008. Accessed July 10, 2021. https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs22.pdf

2. Pay for hours worked. You have the right to be paid fairly. US Department of Labor website. Accessed July 10, 2021. https://www.worker.gov/concerns/pay-hours-worked/

3. Fact Sheet #21: Recordkeeping requirements under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Wage and Hour Division. US Department of Labor website. Revised July 2008. Accessed July 10, 2021. https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs21.pdf

4. Weighted average overtime (WAOT) calculation. Accessed July 10, 2021. https://cs.thomsonreuters.com/ua/acct_pr/acs/cs_us_en/pr/pr_proc/waot_overview.htm

5. Wages and the Fair Labor Standards Act. Wage and Hour Division. US Department of Labor. Accessed July 10, 2021. https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/flsa