There’s a great article on Slate.com that was just published yesterday called The Way We Work Is Killing Us. It’s absolutely worth reading in full, but the short answer to the titular question is a resounding “yes,” employer required overtime is perfectly legal. Americans work more hours in higher-stress environments than many other first world nations, and it’s doing real harm to the workforce.
With that in mind, one aspect of that problem that bears further examination is the concept of overtime, and how it works from a legal standpoint.
What Is Overtime?
For most nonexempt employees, overtime means working more than forty hours in a week. For every hour over forty worked in a single workweek, employers must pay one-and-a-half times the employee’s salary for those hours.
For example, if you earn $10/hour, and work 41 hours in a single week, your employer owes you $415: 40x$10, plus 1x$15.
Required & “Forced” Overtime
There is a popular misconception among many employees that their employers cannot force or require them to work overtime. This idea, unfortunately, is quite false.
There is nothing inherently illegal about employer required overtime or setting a schedule where you must work more than 40 hours per week. If your employer says they need you to work 48 hours next week and you punch out at 40 hours, they have every right to write you up or even fire you for not working when you were supposed to.
As long as your employer pays you the appropriate amount for the overtime hours you’ve worked, they aren’t breaking any laws.
On the flip side, if an employer has a rule against you working more than 40 hours, and you do so anyway, they still must pay you appropriate overtime compensation. They could also discipline you (or fire you) for breaking the rule against working overtime, but they must still pay you for the hours you worked.
When Is This A Legal Issue?
The only reason that there would be a legal issue regarding overtime, is if an employer is not paying an employee what they are owed.
Legally, an employer must pay an employee for every minute they work, at the appropriate pay rate. If a employer is requiring employees to work overtime, but only paying them at their regular rate of pay (not time-and-a-half) that’s illegal and those employees can take legal action.