Everyone knows that exempt employees—those who aren’t eligible for overtime pay such as executives and management—can be made to work 24/7/365.
What about nonexempt employees—those who do earn overtime wages? Can you make them work 9, 10, 12, or more hours in a day?
In many states--yes, you can force most adult employees to do just that. You just have to pay them for it (and potentially provide periodic meal or rest periods as required). Child labor laws generally regulate the number of hours children can work per day and workers in some regulated industries (truck drivers and airline pilots for example), may have maximum shift lengths. Collective Bargaining Agreements may also limit the hours unionized employees can be scheduled to work. But for many employees in the private sector, such restrictions on their hours worked do not apply.
Of course, hourly employees must receive their base hourly wage for all hours worked, plus regular overtime pay (time-and-one-half their regular hourly wage) for hours worked over 40 in a work week. In a number of states, additional premium pay may apply. For example, in California, if someone works more than 8, but up to 12, hours in a day, he or she earns daily overtime at time-and-half for hours 9, 10, 11, and 12, and daily double time for any additional hours worked in that day. New York has a “spread of hours” rule, which requires that employees with work days longer than 10 hours (i.e. more than 10 hours from start time to finish time even if there is a long mid-day break) receive an additional hour’s pay at minimum wage. But, that wage requirement, like the California daily overtime pay rule, does not dictate a maximum number of hours employees can work per day or per week.
Federal law, as set out in the Fair Labor Standards Act says nothing about how many hours someone can work in a day or at a time. In fact, under the FLSA, the only limit on how many hours an employee can work in a week is the number of hours in a week. To work an employee more than 168 hours in a week requires breaking the laws of physics, not the FLSA. The result may be different under state law, however. Some states, such as New York, Illinois and Wisconsin, have laws putting a cap on the number of days certain employees can work per week (often called “one-day-rest-in-seven” laws). But, even those laws do not prohibit employers from scheduling long days during the six days those employees work.
In many states, if an employer’s wallet is deep enough, the need great enough, and the employee is not covered by a wage order dictating otherwise for the employee’s position (such as for individuals in certain health care positions, mining or other safety-sensitive positions), or by other regulations, an employee can be required to work all day and night long—as long as the employee is properly compensated under the law (and meal or other rest-break laws are complied with). While it is probably not advisable, it may be permissible.
Keep in mind as well, however that, even if permissible, some states may have laws or regulations making long hour requirements difficult to enforce. For example, in California, employees cannot be disciplined or terminated for refusing to work more than 72 hours in a week—even though the law does not limit the work-week to 72 hours.
Thus, although it may not be prudent to do so, and morale concerns may dictate otherwise, where an employee’s hours are not otherwise limited by applicable regulations or otherwise, an employer can require long work days (and long weeks) so long as the company pays its employees appropriately, under federal and state wage payment law, and provides any required breaks (which generally are not as numerous as most employees believe).
However, if the issue is just “can the company mandate overtime hours?” For the most part, the answer is “yes.”