Can my boss send me home early without pay?

Flickr user Suburbandollar

(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady, 

I work for a company that relies on the Internet. The server was down today, going off and on. They knew about the problem two hours before we reported to work. So when I clocked in at work, we stayed for about one hour and then were sent home and told to come back at 5 pm. (My shift is 12 to 9 pm)

If we chose not to come back, we had to make up for seven hours by Saturday and come in early for your shift over the next few days. Since I have a second job, I chose to return at 5 pm that day and come in early on Tuesday and Wednesday  When I left my house, I called to make sure they were up and running. They were. I called when I was 10 minutes away, and my supervisor informed me that the computers were down and to go back home. This is 10 minutes before my shift. I drove 152.7 miles today and only got paid for an hour.

Is this legal? When we are sick we need to call in. Shouldn't the company have to call us when there is no way for us to work?

There are two different things going on here. First, the "shoulds." Since you called and were told the computers were running and then when you called again, your supervisor informed you that things had changed. There wasn't much more your boss could do. Should she have called you the second things went down? Probably. Is that impractical? Yes. She probably needed to verify with IT how things were going, and presumably you aren't the only employee. Computers, while fabulous, sometimes do not work. And IT people can't necessarily hit the ctrl-alt-del keys and instantly fix servers (or, heck, maybe they do, but they just take five or six hours to get around to it. What do I know?)

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Now, let's talk about whether any of this is legal? Why wouldn't it be? If you're an hourly employee, you're paid for the time you're actually working. If you're exempt, they cannot dock your pay if you're ready and willing to work. (There may be some argument that they wouldn't have to pay you for the day that you didn't actually show up, as employers can deduct pay for whole days. However, I think that would be legally risky for your employer, since you were clearly ready, willing and able to work.)

However, as you are a non-exempt employee, not working means not getting paid. Many jobs have rather unpredictable end times. For instance, in retail or a restaurant it's not uncommon for employees to be sent home early if it's slow. Managers compulsively check to make sure their payroll is at a certain percentage of the store's revenue. If it goes above that percentage, someone is going home early. 

In your case, there simply was no work to be done. Is this "fair" to you? Of course not. We work because we need money. We need money because we like to live in places with roofs and plumbing, and we also like to eat and wear clothes. We depend on our paychecks. But companies are also run by humans with houses and plumbing expectations. It's jut as "unfair" to them to have to pay you for not working as it is for you to not get the number of hours you expected. Most companies don't have gobs of cash just lying around. They aren't charities set up to provide income for people. They hire people because the people earn the company more money than the company must pay them. When that ceases to be true, there is no need for the employees.

If the computer problems are frequent, then it would be time to look for a new job. But if it's just a problem this week, it's time to suck it up. Your commute, at 76 miles each way, is absurdly long. Your boss cannot be expected to operate the business based on an outlier like yourself. The average American commutes about 25 minutes. Therefore, while it's annoying to be sent back 10 minutes before expected arrival, most of your coworkers would have face a more reasonable trip home.

Ask your manager to call you in future as soon as she knows there will be a problem with the computers, as your commute is long. But other than that, try your best to make up the hours.

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to evilhrlady@gmail.com.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Suburbandollar

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