It’s not unusual for employers to want to cut costs and save money—makes perfect sense when you own and run your own business. Unfortunately, we find dentists taking this desire, combining it with an industry misconception, and then creating financial liability and employee resentment.
Dentists get frustrated when hygienists have no-shows or cancellations in the hygiene schedule and are still compensating the hygienist for the time “while doing nothing.” To manage this situation, Dentists often have a policy, whether written or verbal, that states hygienists must clock out when they have no patient and no other work to be performed.
While this most commonly affects hygienists, this could be a policy for any employee. Is it okay? One could argue that the individual isn’t working so, why not? Like so many things, the laws are not always logical and, in a lot of cases, don’t work in favor of the employer. It comes down to this: would the time between patients in which no work is being done count as “waiting time”?
The government is clear that under certain circumstances some waiting time must be paid. Therefore, a policy enforcing employees to clock out could be non-compliant. Like so many things, the ability to force a clock-out is driven on a case-by-case basis; there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to this.
So, when is waiting time paid? Here is what the Department of Labor (DOL) states: “Whether waiting time is hours worked under the Act depends upon the particular circumstances. Generally, the facts may show that the employee was engaged to wait (which is work time) or the facts may show that the employee was waiting to be engaged (which is not work time).”
“Engaged to Wait” [Taken from the DOL website]
When your employee is waiting for work to do, for repairs to be made, etc. while on duty, he or she is engaged to wait and the time is hours worked.
- A receptionist who reads a book while waiting for customers or telephone calls.
- A messenger who works a crossword puzzle while awaiting assignments.
- A fireman who plays checkers while waiting for alarms.
In each of these situations, the employee is engaged to wait and the time is hours worked. Waiting is an essential part of the job.
The time is hours worked even though your employee is allowed to leave the premises or the job site during such periods of inactivity. The period during which the inactivity occurs is unpredictable and usually of short duration. In either event, your employee is unable to use the time effectively for his or her own purposes. Your employee’s time belongs to and is controlled by you, the employer.
“Waiting to be Engaged” [Taken from the DOL website]
Off duty waiting time or layover time is a period during which the employee is waiting to be engaged and is not hours worked.
Off duty waiting time or layover time is not hours worked if:
- your employee is completely relieved from duty;
- the periods are long enough to enable your employee to use the time effectively for his or her own purposes;
- your employee is definitely told in advance that he or she may leave the job; and
- your employee is advised of the time that he or she is required to return to work.
All of the above requirements must be met or the employee is working while waiting. Whether the time is long enough to enable your employee to use the time effectively for his or her own purpose depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of the case.
Whether an employee can be forced to clock out and not be paid for his/her time comes down to whether or not each employee in each situation meets the above criteria for “waiting to be engaged.” This is not an easy determination. Best practice is to: 1) avoid such policies, 2) find actual work for all employees to do when patients aren’t present and 3) focus on improving your systems and verbal skills to reduce the likelihood of no-show and cancellations.